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Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: July 2023 Edition

Nimona. Cr: Netflix © 2023 Photo: Parrish Lewis/Netflix/Parrish Lewis/Netflix

After burning through the new-and-improved Extraction 2 and a modern take on a ’70s paranoia thriller, Netflix subscribers can choose between four new rom-coms from four countries, all oriented around the tensions between love and business. (Only one, however, has Gabrielle Union taking a walk on the cougar side.) Those uninterested in lovey-doveyness can go as far in the opposite direction as possible with a slippery Japanese revenge thriller that plays its cards much closer to the vest. A peppy genre mash-up gives Netflix one of its best-reviewed and most-viewed animated titles, and those still experiencing post-Succession withdrawal can allay their symptoms with a chilling performance from Sarah Snook. In any case, summer’s here, and we all need a good reason to get out of the heat; Netflix is all too happy to oblige. Read on for a full lowdown on the Netflix Original Films newly added to the service this month.

Essential Streaming

They Cloned Tyrone

Juel Taylor’s astoundingly confident debut feature carries on the legacy of anxious ’70s thrillers like The Spook Who Sat by the Door, movies whose paranoia about conspiratorial doings along racial lines was validated by the revelation that the government was indeed up to some shit. A dealer (John Boyega), his rival (Jamie Foxx), and a quick-witted sex worker (Teyonah Parris) discover that the clichés of urban life are not natural sociology but rather a concerted effort by white America to turn Black populations into docile caricatures of themselves. With a heady mix of suspense and irreverent humor — grape drink, Baptist services, and Top 40 hip-hop all figure into the plot to control Black culture — and sci-fi nervously glancing over its shoulder, Taylor nails the joking-except-not-really register of his satire. He puts the nefariousness of the Man in outsize terms for entertainment value, but the underlying sentiment that clandestine appendages of power work in the shadows to undermine marginalized demographics rings too true. (Just try not to get too distracted wondering whether the not-quite-right grainy texture is the result of actual analog shooting and a weird transfer to Netflix’s compressed platform or a digital imitation of a bona fide filmstrip. It’s enough to just enjoy the ride.)

Bird Box: Barcelona

The title to this spinoff of the 2018 postapocalyptic survival thriller sounds like a reality show in which 20-somethings date over the course of one crazy summer, but it’s actually a surprising improvement on the boneheaded original. Writer-directors David and Àlex Pastor do themselves a favor by reframing the monsters killing all those who open their eyes as a more abstract and conceptual force than last time, now possibly an extension of God’s divine will or a quirk of quantum physics. Their other canny move concerns the true nature of protagonist Sebastián (Mario Casas) and his daughter, Anna (Alejandra Howard), the characters’ interiorities and sympathies both challenged with twists that hold deeper significance than merely pulling the rug. The previous film’s plot schematic of a fraught exodus in search of a sanctuary becomes a darker and more complicated mission in its second incarnation, even if it’s all resolved in a morally tidy way that contradicts the winning ambivalence of the first hour or so. The final moments unabashedly court yet another installment, but considering the ingenuity of this one, hey, why not?


Once you’ve gotten used to the uncanny computer-animation style from Netflix partner DNEG — it’s both too mechanical and too smooth — there’s plenty to enjoy in this feature-length take on the cult graphic novel about gay knight Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed) and spunky teen shape-shifter Nimona (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz). The characters and their mission to clear Ballister of the queen’s murder by sniffing out the true assassin don’t hold interest quite as consistently as the world where it all goes down: a clever fusion of old-world medieval fantasy and 22nd-century sci-fi replete with laser lances and Arthurian-meets-Jetsons architecture. The humor and character development pitch themselves toward 12-year-olds, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing; they’ll appreciate the bratty insouciance of Nimona and the feelings-related challenges underneath it as well as the bright, friendly art design, which offers a synthetic American substitute for anime. Mostly, it should inspire viewers to seek out the (decidedly more easy on the eye) original comic by ND Stevenson and venture further into the universe.

Also Showing

Happiness for Beginners

Ellie Kemper took the role of an embittered divorcée getting a dose of self-sufficiency on a survivalist getaway for a change of pace, a reprieve from the bubbly, girlish Kimmy Schmidt and The Office’s Erin. But even though the subject matter may be weightier — we’re dealing with grief, guilt, and narratively strained degenerative ocular disease — the edgeless coziness of this bog-standard rom-com isn’t such a far cry from the guileless innocence for which she is best known. (Kemper has described her character, Helen, not as angry or jaded but as a “grump,” a crucial distinction that speaks to this film’s softened notion of hard experiences.) Nevertheless, the likable, relatively grounded Kemper hits her archetype’s beats with all-in self-investment, which is far more than can be said for the animated slice of Wonder Bread known as Luke Grimes, with whom she couples up. His generic ruggedness makes the film around him feel more indistinct, fighting Kemper’s commendable if qualified effort to set herself apart from herself.


The setup for this dystopian thought experiment sounds like something out of Peter Thiel’s wildest dreams: In the future, the grubby poors can tread water along an abject poverty line by selling years of their lives to one-percenter buyers. Shameless sales rep Max (Kostja Ullmann) frames it as a logical exchange, bringing money to those in need and time to people who will spend it on a better quality of life. He comes to understand the casual brutality of this practice, however, when his home burns down and the bank comes to collect on the 40 years his wife put down as collateral to buy it. She instantly turns into an old person, and so begins a trek through the black market in search of the reversal process they’ve heard can be done under the table in Lithuania. Director Boris Kunz seems to have put more thought into the sleek futurism of the aesthetic than the underpinnings of his commentary, which emphatically states things we all agree on — rich people are awful, health care is a cruel industry, our finite time on earth is a precious thing — with bludgeoning directness. Packaging his critiques in an anxiously dystopian thriller gives them a little buzz of added excitement, but even so, this broadly sketched broadside leaves little to ponder.

Gold Brick

Jérémie Rozan’s slick-to-a-fault heist picture imagines the French city of Chartres as an industry town ruled by the Breuil dynasty and its factory churning out haute perfume, a luxury good with sky-high arbitrary value that really rubs the workers’ faces in their own low pay. It was only a matter of time until some wily operator like Sauveur (Raphaël Quenard) got the bright idea to skim some product off the top for resale on the black market, his little hustle expanding into a €2.5 million jackpot with the help of his woman on the inside, the slighted HR manager (Agathe Rousselle, showing some range after Titane by portraying a normal person) aware of some creative bookkeeping. Their scam is a straightforward anti-capitalist kiss-off refreshingly unbothered by the illegality of the proletariat’s action against the bourgeois oppressors, but it all comes to feel like pretense for shameless swag-jacking from crime kings like Scorsese, Tarantino, Boyle, and the rest of the voice-over-and-montage-happy dorm-room-poster pantheon. Call it At-Best-OkayFellas.

June Originals

Extraction 2

Setting aside the long-take action sequence that one-ups the previous installment’s version in terms of both duration and puffed-up uselessness, there’s an agreeable lack of pretension to this down-to-business DTV throwback. Retired mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth, a guy who looks like his name very well could be “Tyler Rake,” at one point using a rake as a weapon) gets back in the game for One Last Mission at the behest of his ex-wife, rescuing her sister, niece, and nephew from the Georgian prison in which they’re being held. The pleasurable tightness will speak to nostalgists for ’90s low-budget B-thrillers; the handheld passages of gunplay move like blunt-force martial arts, the plot only slightly lags when Tyler has to do some feelings with the wife that got away, and the foreign-born villain has an extra-generic menace. It seems that everyone has a beard. Except, that is, for the Iranian great Golshifteh Farahani, commanding the screen as Tyler’s steely-eyed right-hand woman. At once agile and brawny, she’s running the show, the rare instance of a character that actually merits a spin-off instead of having one foisted upon them. The film’s savviest move is keeping it professional between her and platonic partner Tyler, an uncommon dynamic of intergender bro-hood.

The Out-Laws

Netflix’s continued insistence on the likability of Adam Devine begets yet another comedy largely proving the opposite, in this case casting the excitable man-child as a dorky beta male pretty sure that his fiancée’s parents (Pierce Brosnan and Ellen Barkin, both spry and suave) plan on robbing the bank where he works. The film doesn’t take too long to confirm his suspicions, a savvy choice out of joint with the grafting of Happy Madison–style yuks to genre tropes, far more clumsy here than in, say, the generally agreeable Murder Mystery. Although Michael Rooker gets in some good bits as the Mylanta-and-liquor-slugging Fed on the case, the overall comedic sensibility suffers from its rooting in a weirdly conservative mind-set. (Devine’s arc of shedding his dweebiness for a conventional masculinity takes on an unflattering slant in light of a joke mocking the notion of police defunding, for one.) Brosnan and Barkin bring the inherent screen presence lacking elsewhere, and they’re spared the most embarrassing dialogue. But they can only do so much to salvage a concept serving two tonal masters and doing right by neither.


When Harry Met Sally … pondered the question of whether a man and woman can be platonic friends decades ago. But because Nora Ephron erroneously landed on “no,” rom-coms like this well-meaning, mild Filipino import continue to stroke chin about it. Charlie (Lovi Poe) and Kurt (Carlo Aquino) say they’re just pals, but when she helps him land his seeming dream girl (Sarah Edwards) via app, her pangs of jealousy inform her that she might not be over that one night all those years ago. Her efforts to undo her own matchmaking — yet another sideways riff on Cyrano de Bergerac to algorithmically sit alongside The Half of It — draw out her worst side more than the film appears to realize, sending her to alienating and selfish places as she schemes to break up the good thing this man she claims to care about has going. And director Easy Ferrer doesn’t fare much better with humor than he does with characterization, his high jinks no fresher than the will-they, won’t-they tension reheated as the leftovers of his betters.

Mr. Car and the Knights Templar

It doesn’t reflect all that well on a man’s character when he earns the nickname “Mr. Car” because his defining thing is owning a souped-up vehicle. And yet that’s just the case with the hero of the Pan Samochodzik books (portrayed here by the strong-jawed Mateusz Janicki) — he held Polish readers rapt during the ’60s and ’70s with his derring-do exploits while hunting and securing priceless artifacts for Warsaw’s most prestigious museum. The Indiana Jones comparison all but demands to be made, an unflattering frame of reference for Janicki’s generic take on Mr. Car, as he’s frequently upstaged by his sidekicks: radical feminist Squirrel (Kalina Kowalczuk) and the mad scientist Mentor (Piotr Sega). Their mission to retrieve a priceless relic from the medieval days of Christendom doesn’t take a sincere interest in social studies on par with National Treasure, either, an indifference toward history that also extends to the slapdash ’70s-era period production design. There’s no sense in licensing a beloved literary property just to sand off all its distinguishing traits.

Love Tactics 2

Last year’s Turkey-produced rom-com pitting two self-styled relationship experts against each other deserves some credit for a sequel premise that feels organic rather than mandated. The last one ended with Asli (Demet Özdemir) and Kerem (Sükrü Özyildiz) linking up, and so naturally, their next installment takes stock of the roadblocks waiting after the happily ever after. She’s sharing some understandable uneasiness about the prospect of marriage when he takes it one step too far by swearing off the whole enterprise, and with that, the games are back on as she maneuvers to retrap her man. Their good-natured gamesmanship sets them apart from most of the cloying lovey-doveys who populate Netflix’s date-night selections, proffering a bracing change of pace in their willingness to behave a little more badly. If anything, the film could stand to take their conflict a little less seriously; the whole idea is that this is all in good fun, assured by Asli’s confidence that she knows her commitment-averse boo better than he knows himself. Playing games is their normal.

Make Me Believe

It’s like a generationally reversed Turkish twist on The Parent Trap: A pair of meddlesome grannies (Yildiz Kültür and Zerrin Sümer, their comic rapport transcending the language barrier) hoodwink their grown grandkids (the eye-searingly attractive pair of Ekin Koç and Ayça Aysin Turan) into returning to their hometown, hoping they’ll reignite the flame that fizzled out when they were lovelorn teens. As our gal Sahra pursues Deniz for a magazine-feature interview that just might be something more, the script rigorously adheres to rom-com convention past the point of cliché, though it’s all rendered with a mind toward expedient delivery of pure and easy pleasure. The contrivances pushing the lovers inexorably closer double down on their conspicuousness instead of grasping for realism and coming up short, smiling and winking through mix-ups that just so happen to put them on dates along the ravishing Mediterranean coast. But the film’s main asset is the luminosity radiating off Koç and Turan, seeming demigods walking among the mortals.

The Perfect Find

The opening minutes of this fluffy rom-com produced by and starring Gabrielle Union foretell an unremarkable genre trifle: a seemingly perfect relationship with the wrong guy, a flameout that sends our gal Jenna (Union) back to basics, and a fashion-biz job too glamorous and easily acquired to be real. Within the confines of its not so sharp hook — the 40-ish Jenna slams pelvises with a grateful 20-something (Keith Powers) who turns out to work in her department and happens to be her boss’ son! — the film finds a handful of unique minor virtues, many of them attributable to Tia Williams’s acclaimed source novel. The couple bond over their appreciation of trailblazing Black movie star Nina Mae McKinney in a moment that comes off a little like a history lesson, but their main strength is a mutual dignity that’s absent from so many entries in a genre overly fond of convenient stupidity and gratuitous humiliation. It’s enough to just watch two decent people fall for each other and a bonus when their outcome isn’t that simple.

Run Rabbit Run

Succession favorite Sarah Snook slips back into her native Aussie accent for a middling nightmare that attempts to draw blood from the gnarled, dried-out family-tree subgenre of horror. Reminiscent of the Austrian bloodcurdler Goodnight Mommy in its stiff aesthetics, breakdown of mother-child relationship dynamics, and creepy kiddie arts-and-crafts masks, this big fat trauma metaphor gets going when fertility doctor Sarah (Snook) hears her daughter, Mia (Lily LaTorre), referring to herself as Alice, which is the very same name of Sarah’s sister who, uh, went missing all those years ago. That the girl didn’t just vanish is abundantly obvious long before the script carts out its disappointing twist, a writerly fumble in keeping with the reliance on narrative (and in the many instances of limp jump scares, visual) clichés in the rest of the film. Snook looks sufficiently haunted, pushing herself through darker channels to her proven emotional extremes, but the functional, unremarkable direction of Daina Reid shortchanges her.

A Beautiful Life

The Danish singer Christopher Lund Nissen (known to fans as the mononymous Christopher) has a farmer’s strong jaw, a mop of flaxen hair, and gentle eyes belying the lascivious come-ons of such tunes as “CPH Girls” and “Twerk It Like Miley.” It was an inevitability that some enterprising producer would look at him and see a movie star, but this flimsy platform for his presumed charisma and actual musical acumen won’t win over many new converts. He lights up every time that he picks up a mic, leaving a lot of time to be filled by a formulaic pop origin story that reveals the limits of Christopher’s abilities as an actor. The canned dialogue, illogical folds of the plot, and stale arc of overnight stardom aren’t doing him any favors, accentuating the phoniness of the line readings from someone more comfortable with the vibey koans of lyricism than actual human sentences. A climax oriented around his romantic opposite (Inga Ibsdotter Lilleaas) suddenly becoming pregnant encapsulates Christopher’s folly as he tries to scale the ladder to the next tier of fame, overdrawing on his abilities to emote while playing to his egotism by soundtracking the moment with a corn-syrup song he wrote to his real-life wife for having his baby.

You Do You

Like one of those Silicon Valley geniuses who announce that they have invented taking the bus, Merve (Ahsen Eroglu) has a big idea to save her foreclosed home: a dating site that’s not for hookups, but — get this — for serious relationships, the integrity of these connections guaranteed by wearing a vanity-canceling face mask. Essentially converting’s latest ad campaign into feature form, Cemal Alpan’s sparkless Turkish rom-com finds more excitement in the ups and downs of start-up culture than in romances among the mature. An investor (Ozun Dolunay) sees dollar signs in Merve’s platform — designed and brought to market despite an evident lack of technical know-how, one of many brushed-aside instances of half-assed writing — and buys his way in, his initial efforts to squeeze her out of her own company thawing into mutual attraction in the clumsiest terms. The revelation of his ulterior motives doesn’t make any more sense than the rest of the implausibilities in here, a story about human relationships seemingly written without any familiarity with the species.

Missed Connections

Now here’s the rare Netflix import rom-com — a genre classification with a low ceiling and a much, much lower floor — that manages to be funny and befuddling in its incompetence, utterly divorced from reality less in its adherence to cinematic contrivance and more in its confusion about how love works. Characters in movies like this act a little crazy because they have to — this isn’t real life — but Mae (Miles Ocampo) and Norman (Kelvin Miranda) may not be of this Earth. Initially drawn together when he offers some back-end tech support for her online T-shirt retailer, they bond through bizarre rituals like showing each other government-issued identification to establish trust and her taking a deep whiff of his hair when he’s fallen asleep after a long night of coding. Their aberrant behavior nonetheless fits into the lamest schematic of all: A perfectly lovely woman makes herself over as more conventionally girly to compete with a glamor babe, reiterating the immortal lesson that boys will notice what a great person you are only once you’ve become hot.

Rich in Love 2

This sequel serves up all the tomato-based corporate intrigue that the presumably existent fans of this fledgling series have come to expect, following produce merchant Teto (Danilo Mesquita) as he considers taking on a shark of a partner (Roney Villela). But director Bruno Garotti can’t quite decide if he’s more interested in the standing of Teto’s veggie empire or his deteriorating relationship with long-distance girlfriend (Giovanna Lancelloti), who is taking a shine to the noble, selfless doctor (Adanilo Reis) helping her treat the denizens of the Amazon. That lack of focus only worsens as the subplots pile up, including Teto’s journey of self-improvement, which mostly entails him becoming “earthy” by spending a single afternoon with some Indigenous folks who, for reasons unknown, do not detest him. He takes a liking to a comely local girl (Kay Sara), condescendingly prized for her simplicity and innocence, leading to the rare scenario in which a protagonist deserves to wind up with neither point on a laboriously formed love triangle.

The Village

Something’s rotten in the remote Japanese country town that Yu Katayama (the dashing Ryusei Yokohama) calls home, and not just at the waste-management plant where he makes a living condensing garbage. He’s constantly abused by his co-workers, unable to leave because of his mother’s gambling debts, and pretty much bereft of friends — until the comely Misaki (Haru Kuroki) returns from Tokyo and draws the unwelcome attention of Yu’s bully rival Toru (Wataru Ichinose). Director Michihito Fujii works in an elliptical style that challenges the viewer to connect the dots, at times testing simple comprehension but ultimately more rewarding in the woozy way it lurches into the harrowing, dreamlike climax. The porous nature of the filmmaking allows for ideas to freely float in and out of focus; questions of anonymity, justice, environmentalism, tradition versus modernity and generational destiny decline answers, content to stew in a film a few shades more opaque than the Netflix standard. Yokohama anchors the spacey atmosphere with a performance that offers signposts through a melodrama more committed to emotional than sequential logic, his expressive reaction shots an unspoken language all their own.

The Wonder Weeks

Hollywood made a movie out of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, so it’s only fair that the Dutch should get the same chance to narrativize their standard-issue pregnancy guide, and to similarly mediocre results. An ensemble of couples hurtling toward parenthood embody the array of obstacles facing hopeful procreators: workaholics struggling to fit their careers around their new responsibilities, lesbians fielding their sperm donor’s request to be a bigger part of his genetic offsprings’ lives, an overbearing mother-in-law forcing Moroccan tradition on her grandbaby. (Lotta regrettably racist circumcision jokes in that last one.) As with its American counterpart, the pearls of wisdom the film claims to dispense aren’t exactly revelatory, emphasizing the importance of qualities like honesty, patience, and open-mindedness in childrearing with the all-knowing didacticism of a mommy-and-me class instructor. With the simplistic writing unable to meet a basic standard of emotional realism, all of its advice comes off as basic and theoretical, creating softball scenarios resolved as easily as a diaper change.

May Originals

The Mother

As a nameless, unparalleled mercenary lured out of retirement by the mission to rescue her daughter, Jennifer Lopez is a mother in a less colloquial sense than usual in this potboiler elevated by her raw magnetism. Gael García Bernal has some fun as a crime boss targeting this ferocious mama bear’s cubs, and director Niki Caro shows strong fundamentals in orchestrating action from beneath the visual muck of Netflix’s house style, but it’s Lopez who runs the show here. Setting aside the physical aspect — this woman is seemingly impervious to the ravages of time — she has that unique movie-star aptitude for getting us onboard with her every emotion. While she plays broad, well-trod character beats in a register ever so slightly aware of its own movie-ness, she does so with such conviction that the viewer cheers her triumphs and mourns her struggles. Coming from anyone else, the played-straight writing about motherhood unlocking a dormant potential sufficient to lift a car would sound goofy. Lopez makes us believe it.


Actor turned writer-director Megalyn Echikunwoke condenses a lot of pain into 20 minutes for one of the rare Netflix-fronted short-form releases. Gemina (Alexis Louder) tells her doctor that something doesn’t feel right during childbirth, though her complaint goes unheard, and the ailment causes her to miscarry. This traumatic event haunts her in the form of a hooded figure committing sadistic acts of violence — a metaphor disassembled in the final minute as a twist making its significance literal to the point of heavy-handedness. Eminently correct as Echikunwoke’s point about Black women’s voices being ignored by the medical establishment may be, she beats us over the head with it like the faceless specter brutalizing Gemina.

A Tourist’s Guide to Love

Of the many, many Eat Pray Love knockoffs native to the Netflix library, none makes its exotified perspective into text quite so cannily as this rom-com sending our wayward white woman for some self-discovery in Vietnam. Amanda (Josie and the Pussycats’ Rachael Leigh Cook) arrives in the country as the representative of an American tourism company soon to set up shop in Hanoi, tasked with taking in the local beauty and repackaging its appeal for the white American market. But screenwriter Eirene Tran Donohue doesn’t mine satire from Amanda’s transformative affaire de coeur with a local hunk (Scott Ly). Her efforts, instead, focus on providing a rosier image of Vietnam not marred by the tragic heft of war. Amanda and her beau frolic in some ravishing locations, but the natural splendor is a little less inviting when it’s pitched to us so overtly.

One More Time

With some movies, you can hear the pitch meeting while you watch them. In the case of this doubly high-concept comedy, the mind drifts to the image of a screenwriter explaining to a roomful of Netflix executives, through a thick Swedish accent, “It’s Groundhog Day meets 13 Going on 30!” In fewer than ten words, we perfectly understand the story of a washed-up 40-year-old magically sent back to relive her glory days — or rather, one glory day specifically, as she repeatedly wakes up in her adolescent body (played by Hedda Stiernstedt) on her 18th birthday until she learns a valuable lesson — though this one pertains less to living a decent life and more to fine-tuning one’s gaydar. At least this time around, we get a soundtrack full of early-aughts-nostalgia cuts deployed with a winning mix of ironic remove and real affection — from Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” to Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” and the coup de grâce, “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. If only the Zeitgeist-targeted jokes about CD players and hair gel were funnier.

Royalteen: Princess Margrethe

Last year, the first Royalteen spun a sugary love story between the new girl at school and the Norwegian prince in her class — much to the chagrin of his stuck-up, high-anxiety sister. This spinoff sequel shifts the previously disdained Margrethe (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osborne) to the protagonist role, and the coarser profile of her character pushes this unlikely franchise into more downbeat territory with positive results. Instead of crushes, she has blackmail to worry about: A guy in her class recorded a video of the princess succumbing to peer pressure and railing coke, then forces her to date him in return for not leaking it. Where the last film approached royal privilege as an aspirational escapist fantasy come to life, this one sends that premise crashing back down to earth, fixating instead on the violations of privacy and compulsory image management that comes with the bloodline. Even in this rarefied YA setting, the stakes of the drama feel real, which only serves to amplify the forced contrivances of the dialogue.


The hope for the post-RRR world was that general audiences in the West would take up a new open-mindedness about Indian cinema — attentions that would be well-spent on this Tollywood cop flick that’s both detail-oriented in its focus on office politics and broadly entertaining. Amid the ballistic shootouts, goofy humor, and occasional musical number, writer-director Ramesh Kaduri turns an exceptionally cynical eye toward law enforcement in the Telangana region — shown here as a cesspool of corruption so contemptible that it can only be drained by a policeman in spite of himself. Arjun (Kiran Abbavaram, bulky yet fleet) was thrust into a family business he never liked by the father he saw get crushed by crooked higher-ups, and he carries that resentment as he fights the internal rot that poses as urgent a threat to public welfare as drug dealing. The drab cinematography needs some perking up, but altogether, the film has the requisite firepower.

¡Que viva Mexico!

A run time of three hours and ten minutes connotes some measure of ambition. If a filmmaker’s going to spend that long bending our ears, they presumably have something to say. Writer-director Luis Estrada aspires to state-of-the-nation commentary in this satirical look at Mexican country life, meeting the big stereotypes — Latinos as amorous, hot-tempered tequila-sluggers — head on. But where algorithmic precedent The Hand of God allowed Paolo Sorrentino to use one boisterous family’s get-together as an interrogation and critique of the concept of Italian character, Estrada mostly goes for easy laughs — as if pointing at all of these provincial rubes and inviting us to get a load of the yokels. The bawdiest humor paints an unflattering picture of the local culture that Estrada never bothers to complicate — to the point that he implicitly partakes in the gestures of ignorance and prejudice he’d have us believe he’s mocking. (The lone trans character takes the brunt of this — the anti-cherry on top of whatever the opposite of a sundae is.)

Blood and Gold

Blood Red Sky — you know, the one where terrorists try to hijack an airplane crawling with vampires — director Peter Thorwarth fares much better in his latest genre piss-take, this one an irreverent nod to ’70s Nazisploitation and the masters like Sergio Leone and John Huston whose genius initially trickled down into the genre. These retro goose-steppers have a theatrical villainy about them, most pronounced in totenkopfmeister von Starnfeld (Alexander Scheer), half his face covered by a mask that’s a little Phantom of the Opera and a little Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire. They’re racing against a defector (Robert Maaser) in search of a hidden cache of gold bars, a nasty scramble fueled by self-interest on all sides, speaking to the hard-bitten worldview of movies like this. We’re all too familiar with the type due to Inglourious Basterds and its bastard offspring, but Thorwarth distinguishes himself with his willingness to go full lowbrow, trading precision of technique for raw, tooth-cracking firepower.

Hard Feelings

Big Mouth walks a treacherous tonal tightrope, balancing its unsettlingly frank view of adolescent sexuality with an earnest appreciation for all the emotional baggage that comes with it; this German sex comedy helpfully illustrates what happens when writing on this topic tumbles off its axis without a safety net to catch it. Granz Henman gives Romania’s noxious Oh, Ramona! (by my count, the worst netflick of all) a run for its money with a groaner premise that sees a pair of loser teens (Tobias Schafer and Cosima Henman) struck by lightning and imbued with the ability to hear their genitals speak. And in rather uncouth fashion, might I add! Broad, gross, mercilessly unfunny writing doesn’t even have the saving grace of a winning sentimentality for the delicate, tentative magic of those early years. There’s just a smirking amusement at the indignity of having those unruly, incorrigible private parts. Seldom have I wanted to stop watching a movie more badly.


This well-intended queer Polish melodrama sets out to capture the agonies and ecstasies of gender, but pushes more hot buttons than it can answer for along the way. We’re introduced to Tosia (Alin Szewczyk), a young woman who writes self-insert fanfiction with a male avatar when she’s not busy reinforcing callous clichés about trans identity and self-harm. She finds a kindred in Leon (John Cieciara), the new kid at school with a rakish smile and an unconventional relationship to masculinity. The script loves these characters, yet without any awareness of how their inner workings operate; Tosia simply and abruptly wakes up trans one morning, identifying as Tosiek and igniting a romance with Leon despite having just as little narrative track laid for it. The contrivances of the writing come together to scan as a larger insincerity, fatal in dealing with such sensitive topics. Not quite as egregious as Lukas Dhont’s Girl, this film succumbs to softer shortcomings in its unearned hoarding of empathy.

April Originals


Feared in Mexico as a night-stalker cryptid subsisting on the blood of goats and other livestock, the chupacabra has a bad rep, but director Jonas Cuarón would like to set the record straight. This family-friendly modern fable exposes the mythical creature as far cuddlier than we’d expect, a somewhat mangy yet lovable fusion of puppy and jackrabbit with a temperament soft enough to befriend lonely 13-year-old Alex (Evan Whitten). Their deepening bond marks this as a south-of-the-border counterpart to The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, which is to say a kid’s-eye-view adventure in the tradition of E.T., another fantasy-laced riff on the boy-and-his-dog story. The individual components in this familiar schematic are of higher quality than usual; the always great Demián Bichir excels as Alex’s former luchador grandfather, Christian Slater gets his kicks as the obligatory scientist hunting our critter pal, and Cuarón’s VFX team far outdoes the Netflix standard in their rendering of fuzzy-wuzzy Chupa.

The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die

Netflix’s original series The Last Kingdom repackages actual ninth-century history from around the founding of England as the next Game of Thrones, with all the Machiavellian power grabbing, grime-caked battles, and expensive production design the comparison implies. This feature-length conclusion to five seasons of lore will be impenetrable to anyone not up to date on the long tapestry of alliances and betrayals, but the elaborately choreographed scenes of combat between armies bristling with swords may very well satisfy the more surface-level needs of newcomers. (Even if said clashes have been photographed from beneath the muddy filter of underlit desaturation that marks a TV show as Serious Prestige business.) As brawny hero Uhtred of Bebbanburg, Alexander Dreymon cuts the dashing figure of a small-screen Euro-action star in the lineage of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — expect to see him and his square jaw in plenty of Netflix productions to come.


It’s a refreshing change of pace when the substandard quality of a given Netflick takes the specific tenor of a direct-to-video release from the ’90s, returning us to a time when bad movies had a little more character to them. Thirty years ago, this tough-guy shoot-’em-up from France would’ve starred Jean-Claude Van Damme, but here, in 2023, Alban Lenoir (repurposing his macho terseness from his tenure as writer-star of the Lost Bullet series, whose cinematographer Morgan Dalibert directed this film) makes for a grunty, lumpen substitute. Even so, the no-muss-no-fuss brutality meets the modest standard it sets for itself, delivering on the simple promise of bullet-riddled, femur-cracking action. Overlook the stale dynamic between Lenoir’s undercover special-ops agent Adam Franco and the crime boss’s kid entrusted to his care while he poses as a gangster, and you’ll find a competently shot showcase for the physical prowess of a former stuntman who’s still at the top of his game.


Our man Yalin (Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ) moves with his wife to a bucolic country town on the coast of the Aegean for some R&R, but trouble follows and finds him. After spearheading a financial scam that’s essentially made him Turkey’s answer to Bernie Madoff, Yalin is faced with white-hot antipathy everywhere he goes, his old business partners want his head on a platter, and the cops have some questions for him about that shopkeeper who recently went missing. We can only watch as he digs himself deeper into damnation in this devilishly amusing morality tale, each misjudgment and bad decision compounded as it motivates more foolhardy behavior. Unlike most scheme-gone-awry films, however, this one takes away the wrong lesson — the final shot tries to indict us in the protagonist’s corrosive money hunger, making a heavy-handed suggestion that we wouldn’t have fared any better in his position. Even if the final shot represents a mixed-up attempt to extend some sympathy to an unsympathetic man, this choice reduces the film’s outlook to a flippant one-size-fits-all cynicism.

Kiss, Kiss!

Not to paint the gender politics of Eastern Europe with a broad brush, but the women of its Netflix rom-com output really deserve better. This rancid date flick follows one of the biggest a-holes in the annals of the streamer’s content library, a cartoonishly inconsiderate man (Mateusz Kościukiewicz, introduced triple-parking his car on his way to inform his girlfriend that he just thinks of her as an easy hookup — and right in front of her parents!) to whom the film extends a baffling amount of deference. The logical assumption that his arc will humble and refine him, maybe teach him a thing or two about how to be a marginally less horrible human, would be misplaced; incredibly, his loutish chauvinism ultimately wins over the object of his affection, a woman (Zofia Domalik) who happens to be days out from her wedding. The emotional reasoning here is divorced from anything like reality to an absurd extreme, rewarding all of its most piggish instincts.

Oh Belinda

As broad magical-realist concept comedies go, at least Deniz Yorulmazer has an original hook: Turkish soap-opera star Dilara (Neslihan Atagül Doğulu, doing a pretty good take on Love Island breakout Ekin-Su) literally gets into character on a shampoo commercial, astonished to find that she’s been transformed into her role once she steps out of the shower. Suddenly saddled with a deadbeat husband, a brood of children constitutionally incapable of being quiet, and a boss into casual sexual harassment, she breaks through into new depths of empathy for the mass of women living lives of quiet desperation. Stories like this always default to moralizing in their final act, but what Yorulmazer wants us to take away isn’t clear: Could the point really be about commitment in thespians, that the essence of performance is the ability to inhabit an invented person’s lived experience? An esoteric point if so, though he’s certainly correct — not that that’s evident in the low-risk caricatures coming from Doğulu’s castmates.


Food-based dramas had a bona fide moment in 2022, a trend that Netflix has hopped on just a beat too late, though a slightly fading relevance does little to detract from the sensory pleasures plated up in this cinematic delicacy from Thailand. Talented and untested noodle cook Aoy (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) lands a gig under the tutelage of the tyrannical chef Paul (Nopachai Jayanama), who runs his kitchen with an abusive stainless-steel fist. The pressure-cooker intensity of The Bear marries nicely with the class commentary of The Menu, honed to a more nuanced point in this instance. Rather than goofing on the pretension of haute cuisine, director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri goes after the grotesquery of its consumers, their ravenous gobbling a grave gesture of disrespect to the mouthwatering food pornography carted out for the camera. Do yourself a favor and place your delivery order for pad see ew before you hit play.

Operation: Nation

Finally, a rom-com setup with some real teeth: Staszek (Maciej Musiałowski) attends meetings of the Radical Youth Society cell of Polish white nationalists, though he’s not all that into it. He mostly sees it as something to do with his more earnestly bigoted cousin (Borys Szyc), an ambivalence that leaves him susceptible to the transformative influence of comely leftist Pola (Magdalena Mascianica). Since the earliest days of screwball, the opposites-attract schematic has worked best when the differences between the leads have some genuine stakes, and the script from Jakub Ruzyllo and Lukasz Sychowicz gets in some well-placed blows at the Polish government’s elbow-rubbing with fascism. But a simplistic approach to sketching character counteracts the aspiration to political satire with Pola’s cohort portrayed as ridiculous in many of the same ways as Staszek’s. (Also calling back to Jojo Rabbit and its false equivalencies is a closeted gay character redolent of Sam Rockwell’s #NotAllNazis straw man.) Though the film’s conscience may be in the right place, there’s no heat to fuel the forbidden attraction from across the aisle, and no sense for what makes them so irresistible to one another.


Though this horror-comedy doesn’t quite hit the eccentric highs of HBO’s underappreciated, tragically short-lived Los Espookys, its appeal as a Spanish-language salute to the macabre executed with a jerry-rigged DIY scrappiness pushes many of the same buttons. A real-life trio of paranormal investigators inspired the often-quibbling ladies of Phenomena: medium Gloria (Toni Acosta), videographer Paz (Gracia Olayo), and true-believer assistant Sagrario (Belen Rueda), united by their fascination with all things spectral and their compulsive chain-smoking. They happen upon the biggest case of their careers, a possibly bona fide encounter with the supernatural that threatens the already tenuous relationship between these people who can barely stand each other. Amusing as their dynamic can be, it’s ill-fitted for a movie unshy about its intention toward franchising, their story left presumptively open-ended to allow for future installments. We’re given a fraction of narrative just to goose anticipation for its next part, a business move that forces art to string along its audience.

Queens on the Run

Another algorithmically approved road-trip comedy between aging pals with baggage to ditch, another slew of mild high jinks and epiphanies about What Growing Up Means. This one zeroes in on middle-aged womanhood with the same deglamorized self-effacement as in Wine Country, and recycles the same archetypes dating back at least to Bridesmaids to articulate it: We’ve got the neglected mom (Alejandra Ambrosi), the unfulfilled careerist (Paola Nunez), the degraded trophy wife (Martha Higareda), and the uncouth weirdo going for the belly laughs (Valeria Vera) all in tow. Excretory gags, check. Kooky hitchhiker, check. Tame interlude of drug use, check. A chase scene far too elaborate to be navigated by amateurs, check. Dialogue about the lack of dignity to aging as a woman, reinforced by a film dragging them through all manner of embarrassments, big-time check. When will these lumpen oldsploitation pictures realize that there’s no greater demonstration of respect to our elders than giving them good material to perform?

March Originals

Luther: The Fallen Sun

What’s past is prologue in this feature continuation of Luther, the long-running British police-procedural series, which reintroduces DCI John Luther (Idris Elba, back in the role that first hinted at his action-hero bona fides) in terms that newcomers can easily grasp: He’s a loose-cannon cop on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules, but damn it, he gets results! The familiarity of the character template allows this exceptionally nasty serial-killer thriller to get off and running without much throat-clearing, and there’s no time to waste as a vainglorious psycho (Andy Serkis) picks off innocents with vividly sadistic schemes. Throw in a crackerjack prison-break sequence and Cynthia Erivo as Luther’s no-nonsense partner, and the assorted pleasures bolster the humble appeal of a crime picture with no intention of reinventing the wheel. Just as the dependable formula of Law & Order: SVU can be a source of soothing comfort, it’s oddly reassuring how the rule-breaker Luther goes by the book in adhering to the tropes of his genre.

Murder Mystery 2

Our last outing with husband-and-wife amateur-detective team Nick and Audrey Spitz (Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston) offered little to inspire hope in a sequel: stale gags, bland cinematography, a seeming mutual dislike between its leads. What a pleasant surprise, then, that their follow-up should show marked (yet moderate) improvement on every front. Nick and Audrey have gone pro to little success as we rejoin them on a much-needed Parisian getaway to the wedding of a pal, who is (of course) kidnapped before the ceremony, sending the sleuths on a classically Christie-esque investigation. The screws on the plotting have been tightened, Sandler and Aniston enjoy a more amicable chemistry, and the crew got its money’s worth from the time spent on location in France. It’s not great cinema — it’s not even expertly executed pop — but it’s an inoffensive way to kill an hour and a half, and isn’t that palatable okayness the essence of the Netflix guarantee?


This merciless Vietnamese thriller from writer-director-star Veronica Ngô harkens back to the fast, cheap, and dirty exploitation flicks of the ’70s for worse and mostly for better. So the characters — a trio of young girls trained to be killing machines let loose on the underbelly of sex trafficking in Ho Chi Minh City — happen to be flimsily sketched archetypes, and the depiction of the suffering they’ve endured takes a little too much interest in gawking. Who has time to care when we’re busy holding on for dear life through the vicious, visceral fight sequences that elegantly fuse an eclectic array of martial-arts disciplines? A lurid, grimy color palette helps the sometimes prosaic expository scenes move along, and even the shakier character development benefits from a spirit of bracing, unadulterated, righteous rage. Ngô’s take-no-prisoners attitude lends this exceptionally brutal specimen the air of a Tartan “Asia Extreme” import from the aughts, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill being the missing link of influence between them.

Kill Boksoon

With the market flooded by John Wick clones (one or two of them from Netflix), it’s just a relief to get a mercenary-on-the-rampage picture that doesn’t fall back on the new default of neon, cocked-eyebrow humor, and extensive murder-incorporated mythologizing. When she’s not having afternoon tea with gal pals or fussing over her closeted teenage daughter, mild-mannered mom Boksoon (Jeon Do-yeon) moonlights as a hired gun, the best in the biz until an assignment spurs her to defect. The incongruity of her double life is played for a broad flavor of comedy that’s more situational than quip based, and the script takes a more sincere interest in her emotional makeup; she’s concerned that her daughter has inherited her impulse to kill and wonders if her work might take a more serious toll on her personal life than straining her time management. Setting aside the film’s convoluted plot and its forced twists, Boksoon makes for a hero indelible enough to inspire her own wave of imitators.

Have a Nice Day!

America doesn’t have a monopoly on oatmeal-soft, politely uncouth comedies about and for the elderly, as proven by this Mexican flick that translates the customary Viagra jokes into Spanish. As we learned from 80 for Brady, middling material can still get a movie pretty far when delivered by a suitably watchable star, and Álvaro Guerrero fits the bill as the washed-up former radio DJ known as Queque (short for Enrique). He’s been reduced to bagging groceries just so he can scrape together enough money to attend an anniversary gala (in his honor), where he hopes to run into his onetime co-host and lost love. He’s hung up on the past, and with time he’ll see that the friendly faces all around him — the checkout boy (Eduardo Minett) occupying the obligatory surrogate-son role, the chirpy register girl (Andrea Chaparro) chuckling at his cootish antics — have enriched his life as is. It’s the same takeaway as always, but Guerrero’s sandpapery charm enlivens the well-trod journey to an uninspired destination.


While Netflix offers a diverse array of Eat Pray Love bastardizations to choose from, none match the tonal wonkiness that places this German variety — Essen Beten Lieben, I guess? — in its own weird dimension. We know the drill: A put-upon woman (Naomi Krauss) breaks out of her funk with a getaway that promises a new love interest and reoriented perspective, in this instance via an inherited parcel of land in tax-friendly Croatia, but every piece of the schematic has a miscalculation to it. Our gal Zey has a hilariously contemptible family, their pathological, inconsiderate behavior trying a little too hard to engender sympathy for unsung moms and wives. And as for the country fella (Goran Bogdan) who melts her heart, their playful schoolyard bickering comes off more like the actual animosity of incompatibility, starting with his mockery of Zey for her body-contouring shapewear. In aggressively servicing this particular fantasy of self-actualization, screenwriters Jane Ainscough and Alex Kendall lose touch with the breezy atmosphere that first made this brand of escapism so irresistible.

Tonight You’re Sleeping With Me

The Fifty Shades–caliber success of the 365 Days movies has evidently convinced Netflix programmers that the market demands more lithe Poles going to town on one another, a niche serviced here as amply as undersexed family woman Nina (Roma Gąsiorowska). With her carnally negligent husband away on a convenient monthlong hiking expedition, she’s freed up to reignite passions with attentive old flame Janek (Maciej Musial), in every way a superior alpha male. It’s not hard to see what she sees in Mister Perfect, but their supposed atomic-level connection isn’t borne out by the lukewarm sex scenes that stop way short of 365 Days’ pervy inventiveness. On top of that, the stakes of this infidelity lack any emotional bite, all involved parties comporting themselves with collected composure. (Hey, maybe that’s just Europe for you.) Although director Robert Wichrowski wants us to feel the rush of undammed desire, he does little more to accomplish this than place two telegenic people in the same frame.

Love at First Kiss

Javier (Álvaro Cervantes) possesses the type of superpower seen only in high-concept rom-coms not so far removed from Good Luck Chuck: When he plants a smooch on a woman, he immediately sees a vision of how their relationship will play out. For the most part, this means a dispassionate love-’em-and-leave-’em treatment for prospects he knows won’t pan out, until one errant kiss on his best friend’s girl (Silvia Alonso) foretells a future of marriage, kids, and happiness. The resultant messiness fails to pick a direction and commit to it, making a half-hearted feint toward comedy, raw desire, and bro-to-bro understanding without following through on any of them. The very real predicament of what to do when you realize you’d be a better match for a friend’s girlfriend cops out on itself with a pat lesson about determining our own romantic destiny, a right that no one outside this harebrained premise would consider at risk in the first place.

10 Days of a Good Man

This Turkish mystery puts itself in good stead early on by introducing the profoundly relatable character Sadik (Nejat Isler), a wannabe private eye obsessed with Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye. Who among us? He falls into his own Marlowe-style web of intrigue and deception as he tracks down his lawyer’s nanny’s son, a winding path that leads him to gangsters, killers, and a whole bunch of femmes fatales. Sadik’s multifarious, often contradictory relationships with women turn into a more compelling question mark than his missing-person search, outlining a conflicted man who beholds the opposite gender with a mix of worship, contempt, affection, and fear. In true Chandlerian fashion, following the plot’s many red herrings and dead ends enables us to share in the disorienting effects of Sadik’s compromised world. The rare Netflick purposeful about its convolution sticks the landing, not quite living up to Robert Altman’s idolized example but still in the correct zone of existential drift.

Still Time

A workaholic bored by family stuff discovers that he can skip through the duller periods of his time, only to lose control of this ability and realize he’s missing the little unremarkable moments that make up this grand adventure we call life. If the setup for this Italian comedy steeped in the Hollywood-native Magical Realism for Dummies tradition sounds a bit like that of the Adam Sandler vehicle Click — perhaps the nakedest expression of anxiety from a middle-aged screenwriter that he’s smoking too much weed to appreciate the growth of his child — that’s because they’re pretty much the same. Instead of an enchanted remote, our man Dante repeatedly jumps a year ahead without doing anything, and, more crucially, lead actor Edoardo Leo lacks the dumpy-yet-lovable Everyman quality that makes a viewer care about his ennui. He wakes up to how precious his loved ones are, but the matter of what they get out of having such a nothingburger of a guy in their life remains unaddressed.

February Originals

Your Place or Mine

This fluffy vehicle for Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher borrows liberally from the rom-com classics, combining the geographical-separation device of Sleepless in Seattle, a house swap out of The Holiday, the platonic-in-denial friend chemistry of When Harry Met Sally …, and About a Boy’s pairing of a development-arrested bachelor with a precocious youngster who prompts him to grow up. But this stew of familiar tropes is refreshed by the off-kilter wit of writer-director Aline Brosh McKenna, creator of the superb Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (the cast of which fills out many of this film’s supporting roles). Through well-worn beats tied together by hoary contrivances, the indomitable charm of the leads rises to the top with help from jokes both daffier and more sturdily constructed than the average Netflick can muster. It’s all obvious, but as rom-com acolyte McKenna understands too well, that can be made into a virtue.


Props to director Eiichiro Hasumi. Just when it seemed like the life had been fully ground out of the infinite-time-loop premise with all the bastard offspring of Groundhog Day arriving at the same Buddhist conclusion about “presence in the present,” he managed to find a new angle by ditching the philosophy. It’s all a game to him, with the repeating-day concept no more symbolically profound than a reset button for the eight Japanese prep-school students tasked with locating the severed body parts of a child murdered decades earlier. The ensemble has all the depth and humanity of Monopoly pieces, their movement around the board (pursued by a void-eyed wraith called the Red Person) being the full extent of their purpose. There’s no personal undercurrent here, but despite the alienating lack of interiority in this cat-and-mouse nightmare, Hasumi’s evident fascination with the cold, hard mechanics of J-horror is its own pleasure.

Viking Wolf

Fun fact: Werewolves have roots in ancient Norse myth, as made clear by the prologue that opens Stig Svendsen’s mossy horror picture with a crew of berserks unwittingly releasing a lycanthrope into the Scandinavian woods. In the present, the beast targets Thale (Elli Müller Osborne), the new girl in the suburb of Nybo, who would rather ogle her crush and avoid embarrassment from her cop mother, Liv (Liv Mjönes). Her transformation puts her at odds with Mom, who’s hot on the case of whatever has been leaving mangled corpses around town, though Svendsen doesn’t seem too invested in this setup as a metaphor for how the unruliness of adolescence tests the bond between parent and child. He takes this tension a bit more literally, fixating instead on Liv’s simpler inner conflict between her professional obligation to protect her community and her maternal instincts to protect her daughter. The film aims for the feral rage coursing through an animalistic consciousness, but its slightness gives the impression of domestication.

Dear David

Libidinous young Laras (Shenina Cinnamon) is like the Tina Belcher of her tony Filipino prep school, channeling her vivid erotic imagination into friend fiction that casts her and crush David (Emir Mahira) in a variety of steamy — yet tamely played — fantasy scenarios. But when she accidentally leaves her hot-bloggin’ account logged in on a class computer, the fallout goes beyond mere humiliation as her socially conservative community is scandalized by the mystery writer’s smut. What could have been a simple comedy of teenage mortification aspires to Spring Awakening–adjacent commentary about the paramount importance of letting kids be their weird, horny selves despite a repressive culture that would have them deny their natural tendencies. Director Lucky Kuswandi embraces the awkward, sticky humor of these formative years while drawing focus to how it fits into a hostile adult world, the stakes of harshly censorious moral watchdoggery higher than a little red-facedness. Like so many things, the state’s sex negativity is revealed as one more means of controlling women.

A Sunday Affair

For a while, this Nollywood romance hums along without much out of the ordinary: A pair of gal pals (Nse Ikpe-Etim, Dakore Akande) are unaware that they’re both playing side piece to the married smooth operator Sunday (Oris Erhuero). Director Walter Taylaur never stops to consider what a cad this guy is and takes his selfish notion of love for three women at face value, perhaps in an early warning sign of the catastrophic miscalculations to come in the film’s second half. The lightweight relationship business gives way to wildly uncalibrated melodrama once Sunday has to pick his woman, the choice made impossible by a pair of bluntly tragic plot twists that obliterate any emotional coherence along with our suspension of disbelief. The lifelike female camaraderie between Ikpe-Etim and Akande carries the film before it falls apart, which only makes these ungraceful lunges for pathos feel like an even greater letdown.

All the Places

Following the death of their father, estranged adult siblings Gabriela (Ana Serradilla) and Fernando (Mauricio Ochmann) embark upon a road trip in search of nothing and everything. This Mexican dramedy detailing their mishap-strewn odyssey of mutual self-discovery exhibits a jarring disconnect between its adeptness in crafting character and the moldy platitudes of the rest of the writing. The leads capture the intricate dynamic between grown brothers and sisters, their constant bickering and inscrutable inside jokes a vernacular through which they express a love so deep and abiding that they can afford to, often, hate each other. But the circumstances into which they’ve been inserted ring false over and over, whether it’s the broad druggie high jinks at a hippie be-in or the joint introspection that overshoots “soulful” to land in “hollow.” The prescriptive, clumsy plotting only worsens in the wheels-off-the-wagon third act, with the endearing plausibility of the leads no match for the fakery surrounding them.


Spain’s Patxi Amezcua tries to pull a fast one here, passing off the umpteenth occult-adjacent serial-killer thriller (he’s a professed fan of True Detective) as something new by situating it in the earliest days of COVID-19. But the setting has zero bearing on the plot, which is undeveloped beyond set dressing being constantly and obtrusively pushed to the fore. Masks worn until they can be discarded and tearful Zoom sessions with the kids only slap a superficial coat of paint on the most played-out components of the crime genre’s po-faced side. The eventual revelation of the culprit as some guy performing a vague ritual for even more vague reasons feels disappointing yet altogether appropriate for a movie with only the faintest sense of why it exists. As a document of its moment, it has no insight to offer on the aspects of the pandemic response specific to northern Spain. The nagging question of why Amezcua would touch on the coronavirus if he had no interest in seriously engaging with it invites only the unflattering answer of a cheap attention-grab tactic.

Call Me Chihiro

Chihiro (Kasumi Arimura) — former sex worker and subject of the manga Chihiro-san that director Rikiya Imaizumi adapts here — floats through her corner of suburban Japan with the aimlessness of an existential wanderer, her seemingly unconnected doings organized less by plot than by shifting philosophies. With a gracious gratitude, Chihiro heals and helps the people around her in an effort to understand the randomness of life, a cruel game of chance that can be as mundane as daily errands or as tragic as a lonely man’s death. The tone is meditative and calm, but don’t conflate that with gentle subject matter. Chihiro’s steadfast attitude belies the bruising emotional heft of some scenes — all played without histrionics. What her odyssey without destination amounts to is up to us, any takeaway equally valid: that we must care for one another, that we must advocate for our own wellness, that these two are inseparable.


The hook on actor turned director Kim Tae-joon’s cyber-thriller is sharp enough to draw blood: a serial killer (Im Si-wan) runs a tech-repair shop and installs spyware on his victims’ phones so he can virtually stalk their every move, toying with them before finally striking. Notwithstanding some clever games with screen-POV shots right out of Decision to Leave, the issue lies in Kim’s follow-through — from the idiocy of the imperiled Lee Na-mi (Chun Woo-hee) to the clumsy subplot involving a police detective (Kim Hee-won) who may be the father of the culprit. The mounting of tension that should be agonizingly gradual instead comes out sluggish, not helped by a bland visual palette devoid of any expressionistic intensity to match the psychological extremism. The innovative slant on the cat-and-mouse setup deserves a script that can match its fiendish resourcefulness.

We Have a Ghost

Filmmaker Christopher Landon seemed to have a good grasp of the horror-comedy in the body-swapping slasher picture Freaky, but in casting his lot with Netflix, he has taken on many of the house’s flaws: a bloated run time, a grafted-on murder-mystery plot oriented around late-in-the-game twists, and a deadening visual flatness. The Presleys (led by Anthony Mackie as one of those dads who always need to shape up in family movies) have just moved into an ornate new residence with a spectral squatter (a pallid and combed-over David Harbour inadvisably deprived of dialogue). Naturally, the sons (Jahi Di’Allo Winston and Niles Fitch) spin this haunting into viral superstardom that attracts a government agent (Tig Notaro) and a space-cadet psychic (Jennifer Coolidge, the saving grace in all this), but of course, the boys develop an affinity for the intangible scamp and agree to help sniff out the cause of his death all those years ago. Like the titular apparition, we’re left only with unresolved regrets: if only the humor were fresher, if only the writing adhered to a sturdier internal logic, if only the scary bits were scary, if, if, if …

January Originals

The Kings of the World

Once home to Pablo Escobar, still the epicenter of Colombia’s booming cocaine industry, the city of Medellín provides a rough-and-tumble backdrop to this lyrical look into the lives of five street kids trying to carve out a piece of the world for themselves. As for de facto leader Rá (Carlos Andrés Castañeda), that’s literal; the territory seized from his displaced grandmother by the colonists years ago has been returned to him as part of a government restitution program, and all he needs to do is go to the promised land. The journey there will be fraught with peril as well as small reprieves of humanity provided by the kindly trans hotel clerks and middle-age sex workers they meet along the way, their path a cross section of the various populaces struggling to get by in an environment hostile to young men. The Academy may have overlooked Colombia’s submission while compiling its Best International Feature shortlist, but it exemplifies the combination of artistry and regional identity that rewards global curiosities.

You People

Co-writers Jonah Hill and Kenya Barris skewer Black-Jewish race relations with a button-pushing culture-clash comedy that marries the cringeworthy discomfort of Meet the Parents with an inversion of the social commentary in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Barris directs and Hill stars as Ezra, a generally with-it podcaster who collects sneakers and processes his love life through the discography of Drake, his coolness crumbling once he gets a Black girlfriend (Lauren London) and must impress her militant Muslim father, Akbar (Eddie Murphy, reserved). He stammers his way into every booby trap laid for him — in his first meetup with Akbar, he refers to Malcolm X as “our guy” and “the GOAT” — but the script strikes some realer, tender nerves in Akbar’s casual mention of his anti-vaxx leanings, or his invocation of Louis Farrakhan’s greatness in front of Ezra’s Jewish parents (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny). The home stretch falls back on plotting clichés as it shifts focus from societal relationships to a single romantic one, but arrives at the sturdy and increasingly uncontroversial conclusion that while white people can never know what it’s like to be Black, accepting that much is the first step to everyone getting along.


Netflix’s unofficial series of Obscure World War II Subplot Films (including Operation Mincemeat and Munich: The Edge of War, among many others) gains a new entry with this recounting of the German army’s invasion of Norway, a neutral yet strategically significant country, during World War II. Gunnar (Carl Martin Eggesbo) serves in the “neutrality guard” protecting the peaceful border, only to be taken prisoner by the Nazis; his wife, Ingrid (Kristine Hartgen), is given the Hobson’s choice between serving as an interpreter for the enemy occupants or facing certain death. The film jumps between their respective hardships, its organizing motivating being a tribute to the suffering and resilience of the Norwegian people, who can’t even catch a break when the “liberating” U.S. military storms in and starts shooting without distinguishing civilians from soldiers. While edifying about the reach of WWII’s devastation, the film’s action on the front and at home tends to plod along like so many frostbitten troops tromping through the crunchy snow.


With this resourceful techno-thriller set in the 22nd century, South Korean genre maverick Yeon Sang-ho (director of Train to Busan and Netflix’s own Psychokinesis) takes an empathetic stance on the subject of AI, usually recognized as a dangerous concept if not molded into an outright villain in dystopian sci-fi like this. In the midst of a space war, a roboticist (the tragically departed Kang Soo-yeon) transplants the consciousness of her comatose mercenary mom (Kim Hyun-joo) into a buggy yet curiously human android. The noble work of inventing new life, here a trial-and-error refining process that sees a child returning the favor of being raised by their parent, is the highest calling; the real baddie is the oversight board trying to shut down the robotics program, and the film saves its heaviest note of lament for one particularly grotesque form of mistreatment to the JUNG_E model. For all its novel ideas, however, Yeon’s steel-paneled, glow-stick-lit vision of the world of tomorrow resembles too many others too closely.

The Pale Blue Eye

As durable as rawhide in the role of a detective pursuing an occult murderer circa 1830, Christian Bale proves an invaluable asset to this sometimes-shakily-plotted period thriller. Bale, along with the accomplished ensemble cast, which includes Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Robert Duvall, classes up the joint while the bodies with missing hearts accumulate. Detective Augustus Landor’s investigation is most significantly aided by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling, bringing a grounded fragility to a concept once used as a punchline on Party Down). They all have their secrets, the biggest of which indulges the ongoing Netflix fetish for dicey twists in the 11th hour, though it’s all in service of giving Bale more meat to gnaw on. His gaunt stare is suffused with resignation that slowly turns to vengeance; he’s one of few actors with the gravitas required to sell the utter self-seriousness of po-faced director Scott Cooper.

How I Became a Gangster

Detractors of Martin Scorsese levy a lot of charges against him — he has no interest in his female characters, he romanticizes criminal sadists, he’s all style with little substance — but this Polish knockoff of Goodfellas actually is the film that player haters accuse the genuine article of being. Stretching a modest budget across more than two hours, this rinky-dink epic charts a hungry upstart’s rise through the ranks of the gang world, borrowing the wall-to-wall music, swooping camera dollies, and rangy, coked-out energy of Henry Hill’s wiseguy memoir. But there’s no imitating the master, evident in the carelessness of the fine strokes: that our unnamed man (Marcin Kowalczyk) adheres to a moral code so we don’t have to have any complicated feelings about him, that his wife (Natalia Szroeder) offers limpid smiles of support and little more, that the cinematography revels in the degraded hedonism without exposing the sickened emptiness beneath it. Everyone wants to be Marty, but he walks a treacherous tonal tightrope off of which his imitators faceplant.


In this fictionalized companion to the filmmaker’s 2019 documentary on the same subject, Nosotras, director Natalia Beristain maintains her attention to the Mexican epidemic of kidnappings at the hands of organized criminals. She trains her focus on the gendered aspect of this widespread violence by singling out the case of the missing Gertrudis, doggedly sought by her indefatigable parents, Julia (Julieta Egurrola) and Arturo (Arturo Beristain, father of Natalia), if only so they might have the closure of her death. Their discouraging hunt for the truth takes us through not just their crushing grief but an entire social ecosystem that’s sprung up around this community of the affected, from the disinterested authorities under the thumb of local gangs to the citizen action groups putting in the work that the cops won’t. Informative without didacticism, moving without exploitation, the film uses strokes of real life (a handful of nonprofessional actors bare their emotional scars for Beristain’s compassionate camera) to underscore the urgency of the wider crisis it outlines.

Disconnect: The Wedding Planner

Netflix nabbed the rights for this sequel to a romcom popular in Kenya, the second installment in a Yoruba riff on the Love, Actually–styled mosaic of couplings. An ensemble of lonelyhearts come together around a traditional destination wedding in Mombasa: the commitmentphobe who doesn’t realize he needs to settle down, the couple working through a rocky patch, the jilted woman trying to rebound from her cheating ex. Sharing space with a few other narrative strands, they’re all crowded in a film that hustles them through plot points without giving anyone room to breathe; as in any given wedding, everything seems rushed and hectic until the actual ceremony, when the opportunity to stop and reflect activates the sentimental triggers. The twanging of heartstrings is low effort, but those hitting “play” for the same reason one attends a destination wedding — lush scenery, the potential for a hookup, a bit of fun in an unfamiliar locale —will find their expectations met.

Dog Gone

While hiking the Appalachians in the mid-’90s, college kid Fielding Marshall (Johnny Berchtold) loses his angelic dog Gonker, and the ensuing search brings the Gen Xer closer to his workaholic dad (Rob Lowe) in a dynamic easily re-mapped onto today’s intergenerational tensions. The pure pathos of the love between boy and his loyal companion can get a movie pretty far, but director Stephen Herek forces the rest of the world to be as wholesome and earnest as sweet, reliable mark-hitter Gonker (so named because once he bonked whippersnapper Fielding on the head). No one acts like an actual person, not the biker gang with mushy feelings nor the mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) just trying to figure out this newfangled “internet” she keeps hearing about, all of them two-dimensionally upbeat. Strangest of all is how this unremarkable true story is presumed to have the notability that merits feature-film treatment, with one dog’s disappearance treated as a viral phenomenon in a pre-online world.

A Night at the Kindergarten

Eryk (Piotr Witkowski), the walking snare of selective morality at the center of this demented Polish black comedy, isn’t a stepdad — he’s the dad who stepped up to raise young Tytus, his girlfriend’s terror of a child at risk of expulsion from school. With the ringing of Christmas bells in the air, he storms into a nativity play in progress to filibuster on little Tytus’s behalf to the cliquey PTA, arguing that the child deserves the chance to grow and improve that’s arguably the whole point of formal education. (That the child may truly be evil doesn’t give Eryk or the film around him much pause; what 6-year-old isn’t?) As in Yasmina Reza’s uproarious play God of Carnage, the grown-ups start acting like overgrown brats as they hash out their offspring’s conflicts for them, the tyrannical queen bee Justyna (Lena Gora) moving to the fore as Eryk’s nemesis to be toppled. As a self-styled perfect mom, she’s the real pleasure to hate, her holier-than-thou approach to parenting nowhere near as bad as Eryk’s honest dirtbaggery.

Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: July Edition