July is set to deliver some big hits in the coming weeks, but there are still plenty of other releases. This set of write-ups includes an all-Asian cast comedy, a sci-fi buddy movie, a German drama, an ocean-themed animated film, an animated action fantasy flick, a character drama, a neo-noir, and a psychological horror film. The following features reviews for Joy Ride, Biosphere, Afire, Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, Nimona, Prisoner’s Daughter, The Lesson, and Run Rabbit Run.
The Setup: After a business trip goes sideways, childhood best friends Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola), accompanied by Audrey’s former roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu) and Lolo’s cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), set out on a journey across China to find Audrey’s birth mother. Their no-holds-barred, epic experience becomes a journey of bonding, friendship, belonging, and wantonness.
Review: It’s been over a decade since Bridesmaids, yet it’s not as though there’s been a major influx of female-led ensemble comedies. It’s been five years since Crazy Rich Asians, however, and there has been a larger rise of Asian and Asian American-themed films, keeping a couple of recent Best Picture winners in mind as an example. Whatever the case is for how various films are being developed, Joy Ride may not be reinventing much in the way of wacky R-rated comedies, but it’s consistently quite funny, allows each member of the ensemble their time to shine, finds the right ways to emphasize the culture, and leaves enough room for earned sentiment. The Hangover films didn’t exactly aim for heart, but between the Farrelly brothers in their heyday and several Judd Apatow-produced films, seeing goofy white guys bumble their way through rom-coms or buddy movies, the best ones certainly knew where to place emotion. Director Adele Lim and the screenwriters have figured out how to appropriately mix silly scenarios, such as the cast disguising themselves as a K-Pop group to catch a flight with moments of genuine emotion when dealing with Park’s character’s efforts to meet her birth mom. As a summer comedy, this movie sticks to a familiar path yet succeeds.
Where To Watch: In theaters on July 7, 2023.
The Setup: In the not-too-distant future, the last two men on earth (Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown) must adapt and evolve to save humanity.
Review: I had to look up how long it’s been since we had one of the more stereotypical Duplass Brothers Productions that either is or verges on feeling like a mumblecore film. With that in mind, Language Lessons is a good movie worth seeking out, but Biosphere does feel similarly lo-fi, despite having a high concept. What allows it to work better than just the setup may suggest are the efforts from Duplass and Brown to commit to the levels this film goes to in reconciling what the last two men on earth have to deal with. Co-written by Duplass and director Mel Eslyn, various developments complicate this film in ways I did not expect, along with the details we learn that allow the small world these two characters share to bring us more on board with events that eventually transpire. Biosphere is clever in finding ways to adjust the premise and certainly quite likable to help us care.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters, digital, and VOD starting July 7, 2023.
The Setup: While vacationing by the Baltic Sea, writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) and photographer Felix (Langston Uibel) are surprised by the presence of Nadja (Paula Beer), a mysterious young woman staying as a guest at Felix’s family’s holiday home. Nadja distracts Leon from finishing his latest novel and forces him to confront his caustic temperament and self-absorption with brutal honesty. As Nadja and Leon grow closer, an encroaching forest fire threatens the group, and tensions escalate when a handsome lifeguard and Leon’s tight-lipped book editor also arrive.
Review: German director Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit) has become one of the more exciting filmmakers when it comes to character dramas that deceptively feel as though they eschew overt stylization, despite having clear themes and visual distinctiveness. Afire tones down some of the more genre-related elements of his previous couple of features in favor of something more minimal. With that in mind, it still operates based on complex characters interacting, developing their individual voice, and learning more about what drives them under their current circumstances. Schubert’s Leon is ostensibly the main character here, and it’s impressive how this film finds all the ways to make him seem insufferable. Yet, we want to keep following his journey. Meanwhile, Beer’s Nadja is so purposefully amorphous for a good amount of time that knowing these two characters will have to clash ramps up a certain kind of excitement for a film that foreshadows other big events that could transpire. Of course, once the third act gets going, it may be a bit of a rough change in pace. Still, working largely as a hangout film, there are enough layers to appreciate.
Where To Watch: In select theaters on July 14, 2023.
The Setup: Sixteen-year-old Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) learns she is in the next legendary line of sea krakens. Despite her lofty destiny, she is desperate to fit in at Oceanside High, where she’s disguised as a human. After disobeying her mother’s rule of never going into the ocean, Ruby discovers she is descended from the warrior Kraken queens. They have been sworn to protect the oceans from the vain, power-hungry mermaids, one of whom, Chelsea (Annie Murphy), has taken up a disguise in Ruby’s high school.
Review: So, what happened here? Last year, DreamWorks Animation delivered The Bad Guys and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, two films that greatly benefited from an evolution in the studio’s animation style to embrace more abstract ideas. Ruby Gillman feels like a step backward. At 80ish minutes without credits, this very thin story had the opportunity to do more, given its various plots. Rather than getting a clever high school comedy about growing up or a fantastical adventure movie about discovering one’s true self, director Kirk DeMicco has the film attempting to do both and underserves each. The animation look is fine without being impressive, and the comedy seems more focused on squeezing in colors to please the young audience rather than making many attempts for laughter. Perhaps worst of all, this movie is about giant sea monsters, yet the major kaiju fight is disappointingly short. It’s a well-meaning film, of course, but it hardly stays afloat.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: When a knight (Riz Ahmed) in a futuristic, medieval world is framed for a tragic crime, he teams up with a scrappy, shape-shifting teen (Chloë Grace Moretz) to prove his innocence. But what if she’s the monster he’s sworn to destroy?
Review: Taking a step in a better direction regarding animation, Nimona is a lot of fun. Based on the graphic novel by ND Stevenson, this enjoyable adventure film took a long path to release due to the closure of its original studio, Blue Sky, but it was all quite worth it. Even if the final product (thanks to efforts from Annapurna Pictures and DNEG Animation) has led to a film that, as stylized as it is, isn’t quite as polished as it could be, there’s plenty to enjoy in the look of this film, as well as its balance of humor, action, and ideas. Given the source material and its author, it’s clear how this tale of a rejected shape-shifter ties into LGBTQ+ themes, let alone the nature of how “othering” affects people in general. The fact that anyone who watches this film can take away a positive understanding of how treating people works is a benefit, especially given the way this movie lays in its themes well enough without getting in the way of what fun it is to see a one-armed knight and a magical being stay one step ahead of those coming after them with their laser crossbows. With Nimona and last year’s The Sea Beast, Netflix is doing well in bringing in animation talents.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: Released from prison with terminal cancer, Max (Brian Cox) tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Kate Beckinsale) and the grandson (Christopher Convery) he’s never known. When his daughter’s abusive, drug-addicted ex-husband (Tyson Ritter) reappears, Max’s violent past comes back to haunt them all.
Review: With a script fit for a Lifetime original movie, it’s almost impressive to see how close director Catherine Hardwicke gets to making this film work. Much of that comes from the efforts of Beckinsale and especially Cox, who dials down rather than ratchets up during some notable moments. Even Ritter’s walking cliché of a character manages to feel like a real threat as the ex-husband who stumbles in at awkward times. Of course, no beat of this movie couldn’t be predicted or hasn’t been seen before, which is not a great misuse for this kind of story, but it does rob the film of more urgency. Remove the most generic beats, and there’s perhaps a chance to zero-in closer on the complexities of forgiveness and empathy that inform the main characters. As it stands, Prisoner’s Daughter isn’t making bail.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: Liam (Daryl McCormack), an ambitious young writer, eagerly accepts a tutoring position at the family estate of his idol, renowned author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant). But soon, Liam realizes he is ensnared in a web of family secrets, resentment, and retribution. Sinclair, his wife Hélène (Julie Delpy), and their son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) all guard a dark past that threatens Liam’s future as well as their own.
Review: While there’s enough at play to make The Lesson a decently compelling neo-noir, I wish it amounted to more. The joy comes from watching four characters primarily placed in a mansion or the grounds around it, finding ways to engage each other in different ways that ultimately center around their intelligence and the ability to match wits. The fact that this all amounts to the lengths writers will go to is a neat approach compared to something deadlier or more nefarious, but to what end? Seeing a film letting Richard E. Grant play into a twisty story about devious literary experts can be fun. Still, it’s a shame when it feels like a letdown by the time it arrives at its lackluster conclusion. The Alice Troughton-directed film handles things in too tidy of a manner to be more memorable. That said, there is enough from these stars to make it a decent bit of entertainment, though perhaps not quite the book you can’t put down.
Where To Watch: Opening in select theaters on July 7, 2023.
The Setup: As a fertility doctor, Sarah (Sarah Snook) has a firm understanding of the cycle of life. However, when she is forced to make sense of the increasingly strange behavior of her young daughter (Lily LaTorre), Sarah must challenge her own beliefs and confront a ghost from her past.
Review: Run Rabbit Run did not come out of the Sundance Film Festival with the strongest reviews, and I now see why. Despite being the latest film to top the Netflix charts on the count of it matching whatever was required to hit everyone right in the algorithms, it’s another example of the latest terrible movie to top the list yet have the semblance of a quality film. Seemingly made to remind audiences that Succession’s Shiv is actually Austrailian, Run Rabbit Run plays as another riff on trauma, using The Babadook as a key outline. The difference comes in the form of just how aggravating it is to watch less accomplished filmmaking from director Daina Reid do little to bring the audiences onto anyone’s side. There are characters who hallucinate, insolent children, a possible supernatural element, and just enough scenery to make the art house-ness of it all convince the viewer it’s on the prestige side of horror. Well, it isn’t. I wanted to run, rabbit, run away from this one.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.