Review by Cole Groth
For better or worse, Netflix's Stranger Things has changed the course of coming-of-age horror for the foreseeable future. The '80s are hot right now, and My Best Friend's Exorcism leans so heavily into the synth-y style of this era, ending up feeling like a tired series of tropes with some solid coming-of-age action. Led by an admirable duo in Elsie Fisher and Amigh Miller, this film, based on the 2016 novel by Grady Hendrix, hits a series of predictable moments to get to a rather satisfying story of true
My Best Friend's Exorcism is about friendship, first and foremost. At the film's core, we follow two girls who seem like they should be diametrically opposed, but manage to stick through thick and thin for each other. A key issue with this film is that it simply doesn't do a good enough job justifying their friendship. We don't get to see why they became friends, and their relationship seems rather thin on the surface level. Their bond increases as the plot moves forward, and it's a solid
friendship by the end. However, marketing the entire film around these two people who aren't that close of friends seems like a major misfire.
The characters surrounding the leading duo aren't much better. Everybody feels so disconnected from each other that each interaction feels manufactured rather than genuine. Instead of investing in complex characters, the director, Damon Thomas, decided to fill these gaps with '80s songs and hairstyles. The archetypes that he chooses not to flesh out aren't inherently a problem because they work pretty well as generic characters, and most of the time is spent on Abby (Fisher) anyways, so it's negligible to some extent.
As a horror film, this one works pretty well. If you aren't that good with horror, this might be the film for you. Thomas doesn't cheaply abuse jump scares to jump up the fright, so you'll find more disturbing content and lots and lots of projectile vomiting. The demon that takes over Gretchen's body isn't as evil as he is mischievous. This is where
the comedic element of the film comes into play, which is just strong enough to keep the story moving forward. At a brisk runtime of 96 minutes, each joke only serves to keep the film from feeling like a total mess.
Most of the film is set up for the exorcism, which takes place near the end. Without delving into spoiler territory, I can say this is the scene that carries the movie. It's disappointing that so much of the film is spent on rather meaningless bonding scenes when Thomas clearly could've focused on the intense, scary, and hilarious penultimate scenes. Here, Chris Lowell steals the show as a goofy, over-the-
top Christian preacher/singer combination. The stakes don't feel particularly high, even after all the set-up, so while this remains the film's highlight, it comes at the expense of the rest of the story.
My Best Friend's Exorcism is a mixed bag of a comedy/horror film. The coming-of-age elements feel surface level, the comedy is only great toward the end, and the horror isn't all that scary, but it all weirdly works as a better sum than its weirder, grosser parts. If you love B-Tier horror schlock, Elsie Fisher, or the 80s, you might enjoy this strange film.
My Best Friend's Exorcism releases exclusively on Amazon Prime starting September 30th.
Review by Cole Groth
At 80 years of age, Walter Hill’s career is still moving steadily ahead. Although it’s quite clear that he’s not as sharp as he was in his prime, his latest film, Dead for a Dollar, meanders through common tropes to make a satisfying yet mostly uninteresting Western. While it’s seemingly amateur in production, the A-list cast, led by Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe, manages to elevate it to be worthy of a watch if you’re a fan of the genre.
The first thing most viewers might notice is that visually, Dead for a Dollar is wholly unimpressive. Most of the cinematography consists of boring medium shots and even worse lighting. When the cinematography gets tired of being so dull, it gives its laziness over to the editing. Baffling cuts and cheesy wipes take the audience from scene to scene. Unintentionally, some of these cuts are laugh-out-loud hilarious. A shot of Willem Dafoe looking flabbergasted while staring at a gun looks comically bad, and stands out as one of the many moments in the film that will leave the audience questioning “how much did the filmmakers care about this?”
At the expense of the production, Hill relies on a script that doesn’t take many risks, which manages to make a very satisfying Western that isn’t seen frequently nowadays. It’s occasionally very hard to follow whatever is happening, but Christoph Waltz’s dedicated performance, supported by Brandon Scott, takes a powerful hero and charges him to the end. It’s nice to see Waltz getting the hero treatment that he can pull off. He’s a flawed man, yet he’s still wonderfully entertaining and easy to root for.
It’s uncommon to find films like Dead for A Dollar in modern cinema, which makes this release a notably interesting watch. Instead of taking the genre and putting a modern artsy spin on it, as most filmmakers do now, Hill takes a traditional approach. The sets that inhabit this production look remarkably like an old TV show Western set would look. It’s hard to figure out if Hill is paying homage to classical Hollywood or cutting corners when it comes to set design, but the lazy editing, cinematography, and lighting seem to point to the latter.
Some of the characters have motives that will leave even the most attentive viewers rather confused. Willem Dafoe takes the second billing, but his character only seems to exist to share some occasional screen time with Waltz. Rachel Brosnahan’s character of Rachel Price is one of the few things that takes a risk in the film. After running away with a Black deserter of the military, she finds herself hunted down by a group of Mexican gangsters. Her relationship with the deserter, Sergeant Poe (Warren S.L. Burke), is a consistently interesting storyline, and it probably would’ve been a better avenue to explore the conflict that she faces with more precision, rather than the generic plot that this film ends up following.
Even though it’s easy to criticize this film for its production inadequacies, it’s hard not to admire the story. This feels like a Western that your father would show you. If you’re a cinephile, this film definitely won’t satisfy you, but if you love more simple cinema, this should leave you with a smile on your face. Plot lines messily open throughout the film, but it all comes together at the end in an epic shootout. Endings like these are strangely difficult to find. Sometimes it’s good to stick to a formula. This might not be an advanced film, but sometimes it’s important to have less ambitious films to serve as a baseline for the genre that it released in. If the worst-made Westerns can look like this, then it’s at least a step up.
Dead for A Dollar will play in select theaters and on video on demand starting September 30th.
Review by Cole Groth
Time travel and romantic comedies combine to form one of the most delightfully enjoyable sub-genres. In 2020, Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs seemed to have perfected the genre by taking two affable leads with tons of chemistry and sticking them in a time loop. Alex Lehmann tackles this fun combination with a few tweaks in Peacock’s, Meet Cute. Starring a unique pairing of a never-better Kaley Cuoco and an occasionally miscast Pete Davidson, this 2022 film takes a more cynical approach to what it means to be living your best life.
“It’s okay to be messy sometimes.” This quote appears several times throughout Meet Cute, representing Shiela’s (Kaley Cuoco) views on the world around her. We jump right into the action with a rather nervous Sheila approaching a blissfully unaware Gary (Pete Davidson). Their initial interaction is unpolished, but there’s a sense that not everything is as it seems. The first twenty minutes or so contain small hints at the premise of the film: that Sheila is a time traveler revisiting her first date with Gary to get away from her depressing existence in her regular life. Similar to the pessimistic tone that Palm Springs takes on being stuck in a time loop, Noga Pnueli’s script focuses on the sad reality of Sheila reliving this same day over and over again. Instead of being trapped in a loop, she’s constantly using a time machine she found in a nail salon (more on that later) to revisit this day. She isn't forced through the same day, but at the same time, she is.
Pnueli and Lehmann wanted to tell a story about mental health in Meet Cute. Sheila is broken on the inside, which Kaley Cuoco’s excellent performance perfectly emphasizes. Rather than taking these two charming people with few flaws, we see two people who are incredibly flawed human beings. Neither one of them are very normal, which makes them so much more fun to explore. Sheila and Gary’s date is awkward at first, but that’s the reality of first dates. They’re weird, complicated, and awkward. Instead of going in for a kiss, Sheila hugs Gary. The first embrace of two rom-com leads almost always has a sloppy kiss, but this simple hug shows the more realistic side of dating. Small moments like these make their romance flow naturally and lead to an incredibly exciting journey.
Every time loop movie provides its spin on the logic of time travel, and this one is no exception. Instead of using an enormously complicated machine, Lehmann presents us with a tanning bed in the back of a nail salon. Sheila professes her disdain for her current life to the owner, June (played by a hilarious Deborah S. Craig), and is presented with the opportunity to go back 24 hours to fix where her life went wrong. However, this presents her with an interesting challenge: what should she do with her past self? This movie gets uncomfortable at times, and the most uncomfortable moments come from Sheila routinely murdering her past self by running her over. Instead of leaving this as a short comedic beat, these moments get progressively longer and become more and more horrifying. Lehmann abandons tonal consistency to take sad or distressing turns. These might emphasize the brokenness of Sheila’s mental state, but it doesn’t help the film feel consistent.
Pnueli’s story and general ideas are great, but her dialogue is hit-or-miss at times. Pete Davidson is simply not a good enough actor to deliver occasionally clunky lines of dialogue without sounding completely distracting. After an expository moment where Sheila explains that she’s a time traveler, instead of a simple confused reaction, Gary says something to the effect of “Wait, being a time traveler is impossible, this doesn’t make sense!” These clunky lines of dialogue are almost laughably bad at times, which makes some scenes feel like an SNL parody. However, most of the weak scenes are preceded or followed by excellent scenes, which makes the bad writing feel negligible at times. Davidson’s weak delivery is made up for by Cuoco’s excellent delivery. In this way, the two have incredible chemistry. They’re one of the strangest pairings in recent rom-coms, and they work because of that.
When Meet Cute tries to be dramatic, it’s surprisingly effective. Sheila’s mental health is written with so much care for the topic, making this one of the most effective portrayals of anxiety and depression that you’ll find in a romantic comedy. When it tries to be funny, it’s hilarious. Davidson’s natural talent for comedy shines in ad-libbed moments, which are emphasized by his chemistry with Cuoco. It’s an all-around great film that succeeds at both its emotional complexity and humor.
Sure, Meet Cute is messy at times. However, life is just as messy as this film, and that’s what makes it so good. Davidson and Cuoco are an electric duo, and with a great premise, fun script, and excellent pacing, you’re in for a fun time. It’s hard to reinvent the rom-com, but Lehmann, who is admittedly not a fan of the genre, has managed to make a significant new film that’s worthy of a watch from any fan of the genre.
Meet Cute will stream exclusively on Peacock starting September 21st.
Review by Cole Groth
Feel bad films are an acquired taste, and to enjoy Naomi Watts’ 2022 English-language remake of the 2014 Austrian film Goodnight Mommy, you’ll have to have both a penchant for mean-spirited films and an ability to overlook remakes that don’t add anything to the original. On its own, this horror/thriller uses its incredibly talented child actors to lead a squeamishly thrilling mystery that has too many twists and turns to be anything but an unpleasant adventure.
With a cast of only six characters, the strongest part of Goodnight Mommy is the performances given by the Crovetti twins, Cameron and Nicholas, who give it their all as Elias and Lucas. As an identical twin myself, it’s uncommon for movies to accurately portray the bond that twin brothers share, and this is where Kyle Warren’s script succeeds. Since real-life twins play the boys, it’s much easier for them to have the chemistry of the characters. Throughout the ninety-minute film, it’s up to them to solve the mystery of their mother’s sudden change. Typically, young boys are insufferable leads, but they manage to keep the energy up at moments when the story drags.
On the other end of good writing, the mother, played by Naomi Watts, is an entirely confusing character whose motivations aren’t even made clear during the convoluted ending. Watts’ performance is decent enough, but the script does not aid it in any way. Within the first fifteen minutes, the script gives away the central mystery. Instead of having the audience figure out what’s going on, it’s almost immediately laid out. What follows is 75 minutes of upsetting scenes composed of effectively-disgusting body horror or generally depressing family drama.
On a technical level, there’s not too much wrong with Goodnight Mommy. The cinematography isn’t anything special, the music doesn’t stand out, and the editing services the story reasonably. Even though these elements detract from the story, it’s hard to give any credit when there’s a blueprint given already. Remakes have a responsibility to take the source material and elevate it. Even if it means trying something new and failing, taking risks is much more important when the story isn’t new. It’s only been eight years since the original came out, so it feels insulting to release what’s mostly a glorified dub of an already existing film.
The part where most audiences will struggle to like this film is the story. This was already a controversial element of the first film, and since not much has been changed, it looks like it’ll remain one of the more controversial parts. So little information is given to the audience throughout, which makes it an effective mystery, but it all adds up to an ending that feels rushed and rather disappointing. The plot only unravels at the very end, leaving you wondering, “what was the point?” It’s a mystery for the sake of mystery. There aren’t any morals to be found, no lesson to be learned, which feels pointless.
If you’re a fan of the original, there might be enough to make this one a similarly entertaining mystery. Still, Goodnight Mommy feels like an unwarranted remake of a film with a story that wasn’t quite good enough to be remade in the first place. With some strong performances and a fast pace, I might recommend this to fans of psychological horror films. However, if you’re not looking to feel bad after watching one of the strangest mothers have a horrible bond with her children for 90 minutes, I’d give this a skip.
Goodnight Mommy lands onto Amazon Prime Video on September 16th.
Review by Cole Groth
Of all movie genres, rom-coms have one of the lowest bars for audience enjoyment. Sure, dozens of bad ones are released every year, but if the tried-and-true formula is closely followed, it’s hard not to leave with a smile. About Fate doesn’t reinvent the genre in any way, and it succeeds at being an enjoyable 90-minute film with two strong leads. Emma Roberts and Thomas Mann have some solid chemistry, which makes them ideally suited as the fun, albeit one-dimensional, main characters.
Set in what appears to be a Vivarium-style suburban hell, where every house looks the same, About Fate opens up on Margot (Roberts) and Griffin (Mann), two hopeless romantics going through their routine while preparing to become fiancées. Throughout the creative first act, we see the two live parallel lives, with the movie cutting between the two characters in a way that makes them seem like they’re in a relationship together. The script makes this sequence entertaining, but the editing is too awkward to make it look flawless. The awkwardness of the editing unfortunately highlights the odd look of the film. The lighting is overly smooth, making many scenes look like they’re shot on green screens; the interior driving scenes are also shot in bizarre angles that don’t match up with the keyed-in footage, making it look like the cars are sliding around on the road. The overall look doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the plot, but it eventually becomes very noticeable. What I can praise about the editing, however, is that it keeps the story flowing at a reasonable pace. There’s not too much meat on these bones, but almost no fat. When rom-coms feel the need to drag on during unimportant scenes, it can be a bothersome experience, but any weak scenes within About Fate feel short enough to be written off as a small bump in the road.
As far as the script goes, Tiffany Paulsen’s is pretty good. This one doesn’t try very much new (bar the first act), but she doesn’t take any risks that would jeopardize the expectations of a rom-com. You won’t be laughing out loud very often, but it’s still pretty funny. As I previously mentioned, Margot and Griffin have good chemistry, with Griffin delivering some genuine laughs throughout the two nights this film takes over. In addition to Roberts and Mann’s performances, Britt Robertson, Madelaine Petsch, and Wendie Malick are excellent. Their characters aren’t given much to do, but these three are good rivals and sidekicks for Margot and Griffin. One of the best scenes takes place over a misunderstanding of addresses. Since both Margot and Griffin live at roughly the same address, with a single word separating the two of them, Griffin finds himself drunkenly at his house of Margot. When she eventually gets home, only to notice that much of her house is slightly different (due to Griffin’s nightly routine), she eventually finds him sleeping in her bed. The scene that ensues is hilarious and stuck out to me as one of the funnier scenes in any romantic comedy I’ve seen in a while.
Speaking of that formula, everything you could expect in a film like this happens. Now, is that a problem? Has Hollywood become so bankrupt mentally for so long that we expect a movie to either completely break the formula or follow it? Films like these almost seem cookie-cutter, with only minor variations on the same story. In the sea of movies like this, it’s essential to bring any factor to stand out, and About Fate offers only a moderately interesting premise and two B-list leads. As a fan of rom-coms myself, I’m fine with this. Sure, this would’ve been much better with more twists and turns, but after a long day of nonsense, it’s nice to find a film like this to clear my head. It’s not high art, but it’s at least competent and fun. With so many bad movies in this genre releasing every year, decent films like this are almost noteworthy, but that’s up for the audience to decide.
About Fate will premiere on VOD and in Select Theaters on September 9.
Review by Cole Groth
At 27 years of age, Madelaine Petsch is still stuck in high school. Since her rise to fame in 2017 as Riverdale's Cheryl Blossom, she's performed as the same rich, white, prissy girl — a role that makes her perfectly suited as Olivia in Sabrina Jaglom's Jane. This film follows Petsch as a high school senior whose only goal is to get into her dream school, Stanford. While reeling from the death of one of her close friends, Jane (Chloe Yu), Olivia decides to abuse her social media presence to gain a sense of control, eventually leading to devastating results. Like many modern psychological thrillers, this one doesn't work because of the hopelessly unlikeable leads and a weak ending. On all accounts, Jane is the worst high school experience imaginable.
Just coming out of high school myself, it's frustrating to see films that fail to replicate something even similar to the typical high school experience. In this sense, Jane succeeds. Even though I'm not a fan of the story whatsoever, the dialogue is decent and sometimes feels relatable. Most of the characters fit within the world that Olivia occupies in a realistic way, making the story feel much more grounded, which it seriously needs. The best scene in the film is a party scene which feels very accurate to parties that I attended when I was in high school, a remarkably hard feat given that Hollywood now feels so disconnected from teenagers. This element of the film falls flat after a plethora of unrealistic encounters and frustrating decisions from the lead characters. The first shot is Jane's suicide, marking her as the catalyst for every event in the film. However, the script can't decide whether she has any influence on the world after her death or if she's merely a moment in the past of Olivia and her best friend, Izzy (Chloe Bailey). After her suicide, the two use Jane's social media account to shame girls around campus in a Pretty Little Liars way. At certain points throughout, both characters claim that they weren't the ones to make a particular post, and it's never explained if it's supposed to be the ghost of Jane doing it or if somebody else has hacked the account. It's little things like these that are incredibly frustrating because the ending doesn't give any of it away.
Director Sabrina Jaglom and writer Rishi Rajani have managed to create a script with pretty great dialogue and an unreasonably terrible plot. Each beat feels generic, and the film's overall structure is obnoxious and repetitive. Olivia is a horrible person, and one of the best elements of the film is that she is treated as such. However, this doesn't change the fact that films with bad leading characters suffer greatly. Viewers will find themselves rolling their eyes at how little they like the main character, so there's no payoff for any actions. This is a fundamental problem that films like this have, and Jaglom doesn't do a good job justifying any of these scenes other than to generate a bitter ending for Olivia's story. Without going into much detail, the third act is by far one of the weakest I've seen in months. The pacing is one of the best elements of the film, but this ending is so weak that it still feels like the movie was overlong. An 83-minute runtime should be easy to justify, but when the first two acts play out in a tight yet generically interesting way, it's all up to the third act to bring them together. The fate of both Olivia and Izzy should have been the first things planned out in the script outline, but it feels rushed and mind-numbingly idiotic.
These criticisms of the story are driven mainly by my dislike for dour thrillers such as this one, so viewers might find something entertaining about bad girls losing their minds for the previously mentioned brief runtime. From a production standpoint, this film works. The use of social media, one of the primary elements of the film, was well-executed and looked fairly nice, the cinematography and editing were well done, and the performances from the cast were decent. Petsch and Bailey are an interesting not-so-dynamic duo; Ian Owens and Nina Bloomgarden's supporting performances as Mr. Richardson and Camille, respectively, were well done; and the Oscar-winning Melissa Leo is pretty good as Principal Rhodes. It's a shame that the filmmakers didn't use Leo more because her role could've been so much more interesting if she had been given more to do.
Overall, Jane is a messy and generic thriller that works until it tries something new. As a commentary on modern high school politics, it has a hard time finding its footing, and as a character study on an overly ambitious young woman, it's cartoonishly stupid. While the film is slick at times and supported by strong performances, this one doesn't stand out enough in its crowd to be the choice for any fans of the already crowded genre.
Jane opens in theaters on August 26th, and on VOD starting September 16th.
Review by Cole Groth
After the moderately successful release of 2016's Nerve, social media-based thrillers seem to be here to stay, and films like Joe Keery's Spree or this year's Low Life serve to boost this sub-genre with continually decent films. Low Life isn't amazing, but it's slick enough to stand out as a more competent thriller. With a unique premise, strong pacing, and good music, the only thing stopping this film from rising to the top is a weak climax and an overall lame payoff.
Tackling the recent craze of internet vigilantes who hunt down pedophiles, like low-budget Chris Hansen clones, Low Life follows Benny Jansen, a small-scale YouTuber who uses his charm to entrap would-be predators. Played by Wes Dunlap, Benny is a good example of a cocky high schooler written correctly. His arrogance gets the best of him, and the jocky energy infused with the obnoxious YouTuber vibe he gives off makes him an extraordinarily interesting character. After tracking down one of his most aggressive predators yet, Benny finds himself way over his head, leading everything awry in one insane night with deadly consequences. This premise works very well until things get out of hand. From there, it seems like writers Hunter Milano and Noah Rotter couldn't agree on anything, leaving an already confusing story to spiral out of control.
The first hour of this film is very different from its last 46 minutes. While the first act serves as a good commentary on vigilante justice and the current state of social media, the last two are sloppy, poorly-written, and aggressively paced. After a twenty-minute dialogue sequence in the middle, the film goes from simply tense to over-the-top and ridiculous. Violent twists and turns are too ambitious to keep this grounded in reality, and that's where the film works the most. As the tensions grow, Benny becomes a cartoonish villain and a complete shell of who he first represented, which will surely leave audiences struggling to find out where it all went wrong. People just do not act like this in real life. It's frustrating to watch people go crazy for internet fame, especially when it isn't well-written enough to justify it. Movies like these run into these sorts of problems. Young writers want to create slick thrillers to represent their generation's problems, but it just doesn't work when they turn to violence to solve their problems. This film, in particular, struggles with cringeworthy dialogue, and it only gets worse over time.
One of the definite highlights of this film is how it presents itself in terms of social media. In a sea of bad YouTube clones and lame parodies, this one does a solid job of recreating what actual internet content looks like. Benny is a believable protagonist at first, and how he looks at the world comes from a genuine place of delusion. Flawed protagonists make for satisfying endings, so it's only more baffling when the last ten minutes throw all character development out the window in an attempt to one-up itself constantly. Without going into particular plot details, it's hard to describe what's wrong with this movie because most of its flaws come from the story. The acting is mostly sub-par, but beyond that, it's competent from a production standpoint. Just like Spree, you can expect a fatally flawed journey in Low Life, but if you're a fan of neo-thrillers, you might find a new perspective.
Low Life will premiere on VOD starting August 25th.
Review by Cole Groth
Syndrome K is a documentary about a doctor who created a fake disease, Syndrome K, to save hundreds of Roman Jews from being exterminated during the Holocaust. This harrowing story of heroism stands out to me as one of the most fascinating stories shown in the past year, and this documentary sheds important light on past heroes. It's rather unfortunate that some bafflingly amateur production decisions distract from the seriousness of both the topic at hand and the film as a whole.
Running at just under an hour, this documentary has some serious issues with pacing. It's hard to emphasize just how important it is to research the topic of a documentary before making it, an issue that is revealed very early on in the film. Instead of focusing on the titular disease of the film, director Stephen Edwards gives an in-depth commentary on how the Catholic church handled its relationship with the Nazis, how the Pope wasn't able to do much about intervening in the Holocaust without becoming a target himself, and other reasons why action against the Nazis wasn't a possibility for the Romans. This is frustrating because while it is undeniably interesting, it distracts from the point of the documentary. Instead, we don't get to hear about what Syndrome K is until about halfway through the film, and it almost seems like not enough research was done on the fake disease, which leads to a half-baked and slightly unhelpful documentary.
Syndrome K was a disease created by doctor and anti-fascist activist Adriano Ossicini. The Roman Jews desperately trying to escape the grip of the SS were able to do so by being admitted to the Fatebenefratelli Hospital with a diagnosis of a highly contagious yet extremely fictitious disease. Believing the Jewish race to be inferior and impure, many Nazi officers were hesitant to do their due diligence and follow up on deporting the Jews to concentration camps because they did not want to contract this disease. This summary, provided to me through two paragraphs of an article on the disease, is about as in-depth as the documentary goes. Adriano's son gives most of the commentary on the events from his dad's perspective, but it's simply not enough detail to justify this being a standalone documentary.
Speaking of perspective, the documentary's weakest part, without a doubt, is how the interviewees are dubbed over. Since most of the participants interviewed were Roman Jews themselves, they had to be dubbed in English so the audience could understand. It's almost comical how the people who perform the dubbing speak with these ridiculously thick accents. I had a hard time focusing on the gravity of the situations being described because the only audio being heard sounds like American actors trying their hardest to sound like they're Roman. The late Ray Liotta provides the narration for the other portions of the documentary, but it's not that much better. Some graphics look lame, which contributes to my overall feeling that this is a poorly produced film about an extraordinarily interesting topic.
Fans of unique historical events should check this film out if they haven't heard about the truly fascinating story of Syndrome K. However, if you're a fan of documentaries in general, this one doesn't stick out as anything but an interesting story told poorly. If there was a higher budget and more time to put this together, it could've been a necessary watch for any history fans. Still, I just can't recommend it fully because it isn't quite good enough to hold a candle to the heroes of the Holocaust like Adriano Ossicini.
Syndrome K is now available on VOD.
Review by Cole Groth
Walker Scobell is one of the biggest up-and-coming child actors, but his sophomore film, Secret Headquarters, plays very similarly to his first one, The Adam Project, and not quite in a good way. Both films have issues staying too safe, lacking CGI, and overall tonal issues. In Secret Headquarters, we see Scobell again play the child of a famous actor, this time Owen Wilson. While they work together rather well as a dysfunctional father-son duo, we aren't given enough time to truly develop their relationship. It leaves the film feeling like it overstayed its welcome while simultaneously not giving us the much-needed emotional connection to make this great. As it stands, this is a simply fine, occasionally very enjoyable superhero flick for kids to watch.
Now, I was personally very excited for this film to release because I wanted to see if Walker Scobell could finally star in an amazing film. After being very disappointed by his first film, I was eager to see if this had the heart of a film like fellow star Keith Williams's Good Boys. Unfortunately, this film keeps it pretty tame. Jokes aimed at the Gen-Z crowd fall flat because they aren't quite biting enough to feel representative of this generation and also feel fairly lame. Tonally, this film is all over the place. Sometimes it feels very mature, and that's when it works best, but other times it's hard to take certain characters seriously at all. Michael Peña is the best representative of this. On the one hand, it's hard to take him as this hardcore villainous character, but he's also surprisingly effective in his uncommonly mean role.
If this film focused less on the titular "secret headquarters," it would be a much more emotionally complex story that doesn't feel quite as cheap as it does. The CGI isn't that great, and limited sets seemed to me like they all belonged in the second act of an overarching story. Owen Wilson is advertised heavily as the lead for this, which feels entirely disingenuous after spending a large majority without him even on screen. Now, I don't have a problem with this because I was a big fan of Scobell's performance as the lead, but yet again, it would've been nicer if their relationship was the core of this film rather than the main plot of Peña's character trying to steal the energy source from the kids. However, there are certainly some interesting moments to be found when you put these characters in the same space for the 100-minute runtime. I like the idea of this infinite energy source being used by one superhero for good because it does beg the question of why The Guard, Wilson's superhero persona, doesn't share his power with the rest of the world. Since we never see him actually saving anybody, it would've been more interesting if we explored the details of The Guard as a superhero.
Overall, Secret Headquarters is a film that doesn't feel like it has much substance. It's decently entertaining at times, but movies like this are missing one fundamental thing: the script to make it feel like it has a lot of emotional energy to give. By the end, I feel like I didn't learn very much about any of the characters. There's not much of a point because, in the end, it only feels like this was a bit of a bloated mess where nothing happens. It feels a lot more like sequel-bait than it does its own original film, and that's just a lame way to make a film. This doesn't leave a sour taste in my mouth — it just leaves nothing to give besides a few silent chuckles and some interesting moments. Hopefully, Scobell will choose some roles in the future that require more emotionally complex performances because this film isn't quite super enough to feel like he's ready to be the next big star.
Secret Headquarters is available on Paramount+ starting August 12th.
Review by Cole Groth
Honor Society is one of the year’s better rom-coms, and perhaps one of the best Gen Z-led rom-coms yet, even with its extraordinarily weak ending. Angourie Rice, whose supporting roles in the Spider-Man: Homecoming trilogy and The Nice Guys are incredibly overlooked, has finally been given the chance to lead, and it’s a role that I hope Hollywood takes note of. In a sea of talented young actors throughout, she steals the show in every scene. In this film, Rice plays the titular Honor, who has a seemingly psychotic plan to earn a recommendation from her guidance counselor (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who channels his Promising Young Woman creeper vibes more than ever) to get into her dream school, Harvard, by sabotaging her peers. This 97-minute long Paramount+ original was highly anticipated for me because it marks the first leading role in a film for Gaten Matarazzo, and while it met a lot of my expectations, it feels mean-spirited at times, which took away from my overall enjoyment of what’s otherwise a very well put together and authentic rom-com for my generation.
Let’s start with the things I liked about the film. The ensemble cast is extraordinarily good. As I mentioned earlier, Rice usually steals the show, but supporting performances from Miku Martineau and Armani Jackson also stand out as fairly impressive. At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Honor and her plan, and she immediately sticks out like she’s a psychopath. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to get this recommendation for Harvard, and I found it rather ridiculous that she would go to these lengths to get the recommendation, and it also seems a little inane that this would be her only route to get to this school. The premise is interesting, but it seems a little dumb. What isn’t dumb, and what I appreciated a lot, was what Honor did to try to sabotage her peers. Of course, it’s a little bit predictable what happens, but this is one of those films where the predictable elements are what makes it work. Honor’s desire to harm her classmates only leads to their lives improving, and without going into too much spoiler territory, this has one of the best gay subplots I’ve seen in recent memory. Overall, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, but what I didn’t love was the ending.
Again, I’m not going into too much spoiler territory, but the third act for this film seriously kills some of the good favor it earns in the first 70 minutes. While Honor’s plan at first seems borderline evil, we see how it changes over time, and the audience should come to terms, like I did, with how it’s not that mean of a plan. Toward the end of the movie, some twists are just cruel. Lessons are learned, but I didn’t appreciate the hypocrisy of the script, and how certain characters are portrayed differently, even if they are very similar in their goals. It’s hard for me to say that I love this film, but it’s possible that I just didn’t exactly follow scriptwriter David A. Goodman’s goal for the ending. I was mostly on board with it, but it seems like a strange departure from the very fun second act.
From a technical perspective, this is very well done. The fourth-wall-breaking moments from characters are hilarious, but not overused. The cinematography weirdly stands out at times, and I appreciated how even the most simple shots were composed to look rather interesting. It contributes to the thing I like most about the film: the authenticity. This feels like a story written by somebody who has just gotten out of high school, and I mean that in a good way. Characters aren’t over the top or far too mature for their age (although that is a running joke for Honor), and the cast seems to have this natural chemistry that I don’t see very often with high school comedies. The editing is fun and slightly frenetic, which makes this feel a lot briefer than its already brief 97-minute runtime. If you’re looking to witness Angourie Rice’s first leading film, of what I hope to be many, you might find a lot of enjoyment in Honor Society. Through some of the absurd beats and the slightly ridiculous ending, there’s a great film in here.
Honor Society will stream on Paramount+ starting July 29th.