In-House Reviews #117: The Strangers, Back to Black, Babes, Adam the First & More!

Aaron Neuwirth has reviews for The Strangers: Chapter 1, Back to Black, Babes, Adam the First, Force of Nature: The Dry 2, and Aisha.

the strangers

This weekend tests out IF audiences will go and see a live-action fantasy. At the same time, several other films provide different kinds of entertainment. This set of write-ups includes a home invasion thriller, a music biopic, a female-fronted comedy, a coming-of-age drama, an Aussie mystery, and a British drama. The following features reviews for The Strangers: Chapter 1, Back to Black, Babes, Adam the First, Force of Nature: The Dry 2, and Aisha.

the strangers

the strangersThe Strangers: Chapter 1: 4 out of 10

The Setup: After their car breaks down in an eerie small town, a young couple (Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez) is forced to spend the night in a remote cabin. Panic ensues as they are terrorized by three masked strangers who strike with no mercy and seemingly no motive.

Review: It’s irritating to think this film primarily functions as a setup for what’s to come, but that’s what I’ve been dealt. While The Strangers: Prey at Night was a surprisingly solid sequel that came ten years after the original, this new entry from director Renny Harlin takes things back to the beginning. I mean that very literally, as this is pretty much a beat-for-beat redo of Bryan Bertino’s effectively chilling horror original, minus various elements that made that movie work. Gone is the unique character dynamic (the original couple were not on good terms with each other), a true sense of isolation (this movie looks too glossy), and a sense of danger (it offered nothing fresh for horror fans). But, again, this is merely “Chapter 1.”

As it stands, Harlin is not incapable of developing suspense. While I quickly realized there wouldn’t be any real deviations from how the first film played out, the home invasion genre can be creepy at its core when scenes are staged well. That’s good for Petsch, who is being positioned to matter a lot for this trilogy. I can’t say the same for Guitierrez, who brought a lot of nothing to his role. Given the number of distinct faces in the small town the couple arrives in before heading out on their own, I’m curious about what this is all building to. As it stands, for a film that is confusingly telling us “How the Strangers became the Strangers,” I don’t know what I’m expecting to learn. Still, I at least hope it goes up from this not-so-original start.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters on May 17, 2024.

Back to Black: 3 out of 10

The Setup: The extraordinary story of Amy Winehouse’s early rise to fame and the making of her groundbreaking album, Back to Black. Told from Amy’s perspective and inspired by her deeply personal lyrics, the film follows the remarkable woman behind the phenomenon and the tumultuous relationship at the center of one of the most legendary albums of all time.

Review: To get it out of the way, Marisa Abela is good enough as Amy Winehouse. I wouldn’t say it sits on the level of other acting performances embodying famed musicians, but Abela finds what she can in this incredibly flawed film and presents a sympathetic figure done in by the pressures of fame, substance abuse, and other forms of stress despite her extraordinary abilities. Similarly, Jack O’Connell does a fine job as Winehouse’s former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Their scenes together work well, helping to establish a reality that makes a level of sense. Unfortunately, there’s also the rest of this film.

It’s a shame, too, as I quite liked director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s directorial debut, Nowhere Boy, which had a good handle on how to present the early life of John Lennon. By comparison, Back to Black is an incredibly bland biopic with good music choices at best, and a morally dubious portrayal of a tragic life at its worst. Approved by Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse (played by Eddie Marsan in the film), who runs her estate, this movie presents a relatively sanitized version of Winehouse’s life and has little care in probing into the music she created, her process, the kind of toll paparazzi were taking on her life, and various other details that were already explored quite well in the Oscar-winning documentary Amy, from 2015. Adding onto that, the choice in Matt Greenhalgh’s script to assign specific blame to key events in Amy’s short life, and there’s just nothing I felt I could latch onto regarding how the filmmakers chose to tell this story. But sure, at least one musical number was put together well enough.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters on May 17, 2024.

Babes: 7 out of 10

The Setup: Pregnant from a one-night stand, Eden (Ilana Glazer) leans on her best friend and mother of two, Dawn (Michelle Buteau), to guide her through gestation and beyond.

Review: There’s something refreshing about blending simplicity and honesty with a comedy like this. The story is incredibly straightforward – there are two friends, and their relationship is challenged by a pregnancy, forcing one to gain a new perspective on life. Given the script by Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz, this is ultimately a look at motherhood and female friendships. Given that we’re dealing with a lot of comedy people and lead performers who are both moms in real life, there’s no attempt to filter anything out here. The language being used regarding how being pregnant feels is designed to elicit laughs as well as prey on their own experiences. It helps that it’s all quite funny.

Directed by Pamela Adlon (who did plenty of great work running FX’s Better Things), there’s a lot of joy in seeing a movie like this, not trying to overcomplicate itself. There aren’t tons of subplots or scenes running far past how long they need to go due to non-stop riffing from the stars. Instead, even while the film relies on some familiar beats, there’s an engaging story made stronger by Glazer and Buteau’s chemistry, solid supporting work from Hasan Minhaj, and a very game John Carroll Lynch as Glazer’s doctor. Small parts for Oliver Platt, the Lucas Brothers, and Stephan James are also very welcome. It is not exactly wholesome (Bridesmaids comparisons don’t feel lazy for a change), but this is still a very sweet film exploring what it needs to do and keeping things enjoyable.

Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting May 17, 2024. Opening wide on May 24.

the strangers

Adam the First: 6 out of 10

The Setup: After finding a list of names and addresses, 14-year-old Adam (Oakes Fegley) sets out across the country to meet a series of men who could be his father.

Review: While there’s a stack of differing tones that keep threatening to throw this film off balance, Adam the First is the kind of indie film that gets by on its episodic structure that allows for a new character to emerge every so often and bring in a new energy that keeps this thing likable. As a mix of films like Leave No Trace, Lean on Pete, and any number of stories focused on finding biological parents, director Irving Franco isn’t exactly aiming for any sense of whimsy, but he does seem to want to balance melodramatic moments with portions meant to be humorous.

Fegley is solid enough, even if the film has to do most of the work when it comes to planning any sort of comedic timing. However, paired with co-stars such as David Duchovny, Larry Pine, or T.R. Knight, all involved have a chance to truly shine. This is particularly the case during an extended final beat that feels like a larger swing than anyone expects yet still resonates. It’s not the first kind of take on this story, but a decent one.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD starting May 17, 2024.

the strangers

Force of Nature: The Dry 2: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Five women head out on a remote hiking retreat, but only four return, each telling a different story. Detective Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) must find out what really happened before time runs out.

Review: A few years ago, The Dry arrived and gave life to a new recurring role for Eric Bana to play. It was a solid little Australian procedural that blended a primary story with flashbacks personal to Bana’s Det. Aaron Falk. I was curious what a sequel would deliver, and here we have something similar – another investigation interlaced with flashbacks. Having just praised The Roundup films for figuring out a formula and continuing to deliver on it, four films in, I would like to feel the same way about The Dry series.

As it stands, it’s fortunate that these movies look good enough, and Bana remains a compelling screen presence (with a nice co-lift from Anna Torv this time around) because the story in Force of Nature is not so great. It ends up feeling too convoluted for its own good, with a less engaging structure and more like a push towards some inevitable moments that ultimately take away from the film’s urgency. Still, it’s decent enough, and I don’t mind knowing that I’ll see another crack at this in a few years with another mystery.

Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and on VOD.

the strangers

Aisha: 7 out of 10

The Setup: Caught in limbo for years in Ireland’s immigration system, a young Nigerian woman (Letitia Wright) develops a friendship with an employee (Josh O’Connor) whom she meets at one of the accommodation centers.

Review: Watching Aisha, a film I liked quite a bit, I couldn’t shake the feeling that writer/director Frank Berry felt heavily inspired by the work of British filmmaker Ken Loach. While not a one-to-one comparison (being focused on a Nigerian refugee does away with that), seeing a story about how the system seemingly does all it can to hold back those barely approaching the middle-class level of society in terms of income and living arrangements made this quite apparent. And that’s not even speaking to the systemic issues of the society that affect race and gender. Does that mean Aisha plays mainly as a feature dwelling on misery? Not necessarily, but if something is holding it back, it is the chance to do more cinematically with what’s presented.

Still, even with this spartan-like arrangement regarding minimalism and authenticity, the film finds its strength in the lead performances. Wright, who broke out in Black Panther and shone in the Mangrove entry of Small Axe, does some of her best work yet here as a young woman stuck in a situation and not at all deserving of the harsh treatment she receives for being a well-meaning individual trying to get through Ireland’s immigration system properly. At the same time, O’Connor is wonderfully understated as an ex-con looking to find the right approach to his interactions with Wright’s Aisha. There’s enough strength on display for this to be more than a stage production brought to life, but as a two-hander, there’s plenty of great work shared between these two in a story that effectively works to make the audience empathetic.

Where To Watch: Now available on digital and VOD.

***

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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