In-House Reviews #109: Imaginary, Damsel, Ricky Stanicky, Uproar & More!

Aaron Neuwirth has reviews for Imaginary, Damsel, Knox Goes Away, Uproar, First Time Female Director, The Animal Kingdom, and Ricky Stanicky.

We’re in between Hollywood’s biggest night and another nostalgia take from Hollywood (they ain’t afraid of no ghosts) this week. Still, here we are with a new set of smaller and streaming features. This set of write-ups includes a Blumhouse horror flick, a medieval action movie, a hitman drama, a coming-of-age story, an LA comedy, a sci-fi drama, and a Farrelly brother comedy. The following features reviews for Imaginary, Damsel, Knox Goes Away, Uproar, First Time Female Director, The Animal Kingdom, and Ricky Stanicky.

Imaginary: 4 out of 10

The Setup: When Jessica (DeWanda Wise) moves back into her childhood home with her family, her youngest stepdaughter, Alice (Pyper Braun), finds a stuffed bear named Chauncey. As Alice’s behavior becomes more and more concerning, Jessica intervenes only to realize that Chauncey is much more than the stuffed toy bear she believed him to be.

Review: There’s a decent idea for a horror movie here, and there’s even an attempt to go pretty big (for a Blumhouse film) in the third act that involves the results of a deadly imaginary friend. And yet, this is a pretty whatever sort of thriller, where the scares are never that effective, the rules surrounding this supernatural being are thin at best, and the child performances aren’t very good. Wise is good enough as the film’s lead, reckoning with a traumatic past. The younger daughter, played by Braun, eventually gets more to work with, thanks to how Chauncey influences her.

With that in mind, Betty Buckley pops in here to scream exposition at the characters, and it’s jarring to the point that I wish this film was campier. As it stands, any visual choices from director Jeff Wadlow are undone by the self-seriousness of this ordeal, combined with the low-key nature of how certain actions take place. Better than the killer pool movie, but not by much.

Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.

Damsel: 6 out of 10

The Setup: A young woman (Millie Bobby Brown) agrees to marry a handsome prince (Nick Robinson) — only to discover it was all a trap. She is thrown into a cave with a fire-breathing dragon and must rely solely on her wits and will to survive.

Review: In the realm of fantastical Netflix films, I had more fun with this than Rebel Moon. Much of that comes down to how purposefully stripped down everything felt in terms of story. On the one hand, it leads to a couple redundant action scenes (characters literally escape areas only to return to them again), but it also reminded me of old-school dungeon-crawler games. With that in mind, this has the feel of a video game I would play.

There’s some work done to get the setup out of the way, but the eventual cat-and-mouse game between Brown’s Elodie and the dragon (voiced wonderfully by Shohreh Aghdashloo) serves as the film’s highlight. Plus, I like a good dragon design, and it’s a pretty solid dragon for a streaming release. Do I think the movie suffers from positioning Robin Wright as an evil queen, leading to mixed messages involving the righteous feminism this film aspires toward? Yes. Does director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo manage to construct engaging action set pieces? Also, yes. Between this and the Enola Holmes films, Brown is making suitable enough strides in these genre efforts. Damsel isn’t as strong as The Princess, but if the sword fits…

Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.

Knox Goes Away: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Diagnosed with a rapidly evolving form of dementia, a contract killer (Michael Keaton) gets the chance to redeem himself by saving the life of his estranged son (James Marsden).

Review: It’s been 15 years since Keaton’s directorial debut, The Merry Gentleman, but now he’s returned with another sad hitman movie. I guess this is just the type of character he can connect with most as a filmmaker. Regardless, the film is decent, at least from an acting front. Keaton works well with his actors (Marsden in particular) and even imposes a quirky subplot involving the detectives trying to piece together some of the murders that have taken place. In roles that feel like small favors, Al Pacino and Marcia Gay Harden show up to add a bit more esteem to the cast, with the latter doing a lot with very little, while Pacino does a lot with his hair (and sure, Pacino is still having fun here).

Given the nature of Keaton’s character, there’s enough to admire in watching him portray a man trying to settle his affairs before his mind goes. I’m not sure how personal this may be for him, but as a loose way to reflect on his public career, there’s enough to intrigue. A bit on the slow side at nearly two hours, Knox Goes Away eventually gets away to an end, and I felt positive enough about it.

Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on March 15, 2024.

Uproar: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Set in 1981 New Zealand, a 17-year-old (Julian Dennison) is forced to make some choices about his life and stand up for himself, his whānau, and his future.

Review: What a joy this film was. Uproar may have a familiar arc, but there’s little to scoff at when it’s done right. Dennison, who impressed myself and plenty of others thoroughly in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, gets to show off even more range here as a teenager going through a true push and pull as far as where he fits in. Watching his progression, which involves figuring out his interests, sorting out his family life, and realizing what it means to be Māori at this time in New Zealand, provides a real emotional ride.

It is only made better by this supporting cast that includes Rhys Darby underplaying it as a thoughtful teacher, Minnie Driver as the mom, and James Rolleston (from Waititi’s Boy) as the older brother. Directors Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett provide many specific details that serve the story well and even manage to bring in more rugby than I can remember seeing at this level in a film. Made to find a balance between brighter moments and dramatic ones, Uproar is quite affecting for a coming-of-age story, and a real winner.

Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on March 15, 2024.

The Animal Kingdom: 7 out of 10

The Setup: In a world hit by a wave of mutations transforming humans into animals, François (Romain Duris) does everything he can to save his wife. As some creatures disappear into a nearby forest, he and their son (Paul Kircher) embark on a quest that will change their lives.

Review: This film reminded me a bit of the 2018 Swedish film Border (a Best Makeup & Hairstyling) nominee for how it built a fantastical plotline into a story clearly built around social commentary. Naturally, one could also call something like X-Men to mind when considering what director/co-writer Thomas Cailley is going for here. This fits, thanks to the approachable way this story plays out.

Working as body horror, a coming-of-age tale, a father and son story, and a sci-fi parable, there’s enough material here to feel as though it actually was a comic adaptation, and yet it’s all presented in a relatively grounded way to the benefit of the film. Strong performances throughout, including Adéle Exarchopoulos showing up in a more minor role, there’s just the right amount of imagination and wonder to balance the saddening side of how the public and those in charge would respond to this sort of phenomenon.

Where To Watch: Opening in theaters and available on VOD starting March 15, 2024.

First Time Female Director: 4 out of 10

The Setup: A writer (Chelsea Peretti) steps in as a first-time director to avoid putting the play she’s written in jeopardy. Barely surviving rehearsals, Sam vents to her therapist (Amy Poehler) and tries unconventional tactics to wrangle her eclectic cast and make her play successful.

Review: So, this is a shame. Peretti is a very funny comedian who can easily be a scene-stealer in any movie or TV show she’s appeared in. Sadly, her directorial debut is not entirely up to snuff. Structured very similarly to Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman, sans the mockumentary approach, this film lacks more consistent comedy, let alone attempts at humor extending beyond the cringe brand, emphasizing how seemingly doomed the eventual big show just may be.

First Time Female Director is not devoid of humor, as there are too many funny people from various corners of the modern comedy world to not land some jokes. Max Greenfield has a good running gag about his attempts to attain more stardom. Poehler is always a guarantee of fun. Still, first time or not, it’s not the most auspicious attempt and there’s a lack of finesse that shows.

Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Roku.

Ricky Stanicky: 5 out of 10

The Setup: Twenty years after creating the imaginary Ricky Stanicky, three childhood friends (Zac Efron, Andrew Santino, and Jermain Fowler) still use the nonexistent pal as a handy alibi for their immature behavior. When their spouses and partners get suspicious and demand to finally meet him, the guilty trio hires washed-up actor Rod (John Cena) to bring him to life. However, when Rod takes his role of a lifetime a little too far, they begin to wish they never invented Ricky in the first place.

Review: Following two Oscar wins and a down-the-middle war comedy, Peter Farrelly is back in full-on comedy mode, even if he’s missing his brother Bobby. Perhaps Pete needed him to better round out what we get here (he was pretty good on his own last year with Champions). Fortunately, Ricky Stanicky isn’t the worst the Farrelly’s have offered up (it’s actually one of their best pure comedies in over a decade). However, it’s still just not all there. Typical for the filmmaker, the balance of raunchy gags, heart, and a display of respect by involving mentally challenged and disabled individuals are all there, but not strong enough to support this premise. The chief issue is Efron, who was so good in The Iron Claw but again shows how much support he needs to headline these comedies. Surrounded by a weak script, he’s forced to flounder. Next to him, while some zingers are fun, Santino and Fowler just aren’t bringing what’s needed either.

However, holding this entire movie on his back is Cena, who is having so much fun embodying the role of Rod/Stanicky. His timing is excellent (and he once again shows how much better at riffing he is than his one-time enemy, Dwayne Johnson). On top of that, William H. Macy also pops in to score some laughs. The overall plot is too slapdash and sitcom-y to stand up to Farrelly greats like Kingpin, or There’s Something About Mary, so it’s not really a film I’d call “good.” However, if you’re a Cena fan, you could do worse than good ol’ Ricky.

Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Prime Video.

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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