In-House Reviews #120: The Watchers, I Used to be Funny, Ghostlight, Cora Bora & More!

It’s time to get your emotions in check for the latest from Pixar. That said, it’s also time to look at some smaller movies. This set of write-ups includes a horror flick, a Western thriller, a few indie comedy-dramas, and a Malaysian coming-of-age horror tale. The following features reviews for The Watchers, Ride, Treasure, I Used to be Funny, Ghostlight, Bad Behaviour, Cora Bora, and Tiger Stripes.

The Watchers: 4 out of 10

The Setup: A 28-year-old artist (Dakota Fanning) gets stranded in an expansive, untouched forest in western Ireland. Finding shelter, she unknowingly becomes trapped alongside three strangers who are stalked by mysterious creatures every night.

Review: I had higher hopes for the debut film by Ishana Night Shyamalan. Her work on Servant, the Apple TV show produced by her father, M. Night Shyamalan, made it clear she at least had a visual eye, not unlike her talented, hit-or-miss dad. Alas, The Watchers doesn’t accomplish much beyond some admittedly strong cinematic choices (sound design, visual aesthetic). The actors, particularly Fanning, do what they can, but the script offers them little to work with. While structurally sound in terms of intention, I just didn’t find myself hooked by the premise and execution. The thrills were lacking, and the time spent inside the isolated location was riddled with exposition dumps and poor dialogue. Plus, the “solution” to our heroes’ dilemma seemed rather easy. I don’t need a mind-blowing twist to make a Shyamalan film worthwhile (remember, M. Night only really has 4ish films featuring twist endings), but I do hope for some excitement or intrigue. Watching The Watchers¸ I found very little of either.

Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.

Ride: 6 out of 10

The Setup: John Hawkins (C. Thomas Howell), a former bull rider, joins forces with his estranged son (Jake Allyn) to orchestrate a cowboy-themed robbery in order to secure funds for his daughter’s cancer treatment.

Review: If I were to take Chloé Zhao’s The Rider and add plot contrivances and more melodrama and thrills to the proceedings, then you basically have what Ride has to offer. Actor-turned-director Jake Allyn puts his best foot forward, offering a fairly somber rodeo drama. Still, it always seems like stories about bull riders amount to what I expect from them, more or less. Grizzled characters reflect on things, innocents question why one lives a certain kind of life, and ideally, justice is dealt with. The strength of this film comes from the performances, as one would hope. Howell does his best seasoned cowboy impression and pulls it off quite effectively. Annabeth Gish is also quite good here. I wish the film didn’t feel as though it was meandering a bit too much in the middle, but there’s enough in the way of gritty drama that made for a decent feature.

Where To Watch: Available in select theaters and on digital starting June 14, 2024.

Treasure: 7 out of 10

The Setup: Set in 1990, An American journalist, Ruth (Lena Dunham), travels to Poland with her father, Edek (Stephen Fry), to visit his childhood places. But Edek, a Holocaust survivor, resists reliving his trauma and sabotages the trip, creating unintentionally funny situations.

Review: Here’s a story built around a simple and even familiar premise that I was still happy to go along with. A father and daughter who have their differences but clearly care about each other very much, are on a European trip together. The notion of Fry playing a Holocaust survivor could lead to easy ways to resonate for some, and that’s not without merit. Regardless, relying on this aspect as a feature establishes purpose for the film, keeping me interested in where this was all going. Not hurting is the nice chemistry between Fry and Dunham. The two characters clearly have thoughts on the other, and seeing how that plays out works for the film. Director Julia von Heinz co-wrote this adaptation of Lily Brett’s novel. While the film seems to favor edging more towards the side of slight, it’s still affecting, and a nice enough companion to Sundance hit A Real Pain, arriving later this year.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters on June 14, 2024.

I Used To Be Funny: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Sam Cowell (Rachel Sennott), an aspiring stand-up comedian struggling with PTSD, decides whether or not to join the search for Brooke (Olga Petsa), a missing teenage girl she used to nanny.

Review: The most interesting and mildly frustrating thing about I Used to Be Funny is its tone. It’s a comedy-drama from writer/director Ally Pankiw, dealing with a stand-up in a funk due to an assault. If it was just a drama, it would be a sad one (and even more familiar to other films), but it chooses to be more of a hangout movie that happens to have urgency in the form of a mild missing girl mystery. Relying on a flashback structure, we go back and forth in time (not always clearly), and see the happier days of Sennott’s Sam showing off her comedic talent on and off stage. It leads to moments meant to inspire cringe reactions when dealing with Jason Jones’ Cameron, the cop father of Brooke, whom Sam is looking after. I could piece together where this was going, so the struggle became whether or not the film could balance its various elements together to make for a compelling feature with something to say. I Used to Be Funny is not an empty film by any means, but it did meander a bit too much to be stronger, with familiar arcs along the way. That said, Sennott provides a powerful performance, having to play a character we see on all sides of the emotional spectrum. She ultimately keeps the film afloat, whether it’s supposed to be funny in the moment or not.

Where To Watch: Available in select theaters in NY, opening in LA on June 14, 2024, and on digital June 18.

Ghostlight: 8 out of 10

The Setup: When melancholic construction worker Dan (Keith Kupferer) finds himself drifting from his wife (Tara Mallen) and daughter (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), he discovers community and purpose in a local theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet. As the drama onstage starts to mirror his own life, he and his family are forced to confront a personal loss.

Review: A few years ago, director Alex Thompson made Saint Frances, a film starring Kelly O’Sullivan that I really enjoyed. Now Thompson and O’Sullivan have directed a film together that is equally effective in laying out a dramatic plotline and infusing it with humor and authenticity. I find the movie pitch of “a blue-collar worker joins a local theatrical production of Romeo and Juliet” to be really neat, but the steps taken to fully involve us with each of these characters is impressive. Bound to be one of the more under-sung performances of the year, Kupferer does the semi-amazing feat of being a low-level character actor, completely pulling off a lead performance of a flawed man dealing with grief, his novice status as an actor, and the challenges of continuing to be a good husband and father. There’s so much to enjoy about how this story comes together, and this film still manages to throw in a terrific supporting performance by Triangle of Sadness’ Dolly de Leon as another actor who sympathizes with Kupferer’s Dan. This is a real winner of a film when it comes to likable dramas that get at the heart of how acting and believability can go a long way.

Where To Watch: Available in select theaters in NY, LA, and Chicago on June 14, 2024, followed by nationwide expansion.

Bad Behaviour: 4 out of 10

The Setup: A former child actor (Jennifer Connelly) seeks enlightenment at a retreat run by a new-age guru while navigating her relationship with her stunt-performer daughter (Alice Englert).

Review: There’s a point in this film where Connelly, acting looser than I’ve ever seen her, is put into a meditative exercise that requires her to release everything emotionally despite the ridiculous nature of the process. I thought this was going to lead to a movie that was really fascinating and funny, as well as all the other things we tend to exclaim regarding little indie films that deliver. Sadly, Bad Behaviour is not that movie. It’s easy to see that co-star/writer/director Englert has desires to lean into experiences of being involved in the world of actors and filmmakers, but this black comedy is too much of a mess tonally to really know how to handle what’s on its mind. Not helping is the lack of likable characters. That could be balanced out by the actions or general attitudes having their own sort of dark charisma to make them work on screen, but no. This is not a film out to endear the audience to the activities taking place, for the most part. Instead, despite some strong work performance-wise, it ends up being a disjointed affair that can’t really match its ambitions.

Where To Watch: Available in select theaters, VOD, and digital starting June 14, 2024.

Cora Bora: 7 out of 10

The Setup: Cora (Megan Stalter) goes home to win back her girlfriend and soon realizes it’s much more than her love life that needs salvaging.

Review: Clearly, this week, which is full of comedy-dramas, has some ups and downs. That has seemingly come down to whether or not I find the lead or the story engaging enough to keep things interesting. No, that’s not hard science when it comes to movie watching, but a film can get away with a lot if something is endearing enough about its qualities despite other elements. Cora Bora is quite enjoyable because of how director Hannah Pearl Utt shapes the story around the annoying character Stalter plays as Cora. Her life is a mess. She’s returned home like a thunderstorm rattling up all around her, creating new forms of chaos in the process. And yes, much like with her role on Hacks, there’s something about Stalter’s command as an irritating yet quick-witted force of nature that works. It’s a solid showcase for this particular comedic talent, and a late-in-the-film monologue adds the expected but effective depth to explain why things are a certain way. And yes, this is primarily a film about various comedic antics in the form of a well-meaning indie comedy, so it’s not asking for much from the audience, but it works well enough nonetheless.

Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting June 14, 2024.

Tiger Stripes: 7 out of 10

The Setup: The first amongst her friends to hit puberty, Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), 12, discovers a terrifying secret about her body. Ostracized by her community, Zaffan fights back, learning that to be free, she must embrace the body she feared, emerging as a proud, strong woman.

Review: Malaysian filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu delivers an effectively wild body-horror film matched with a coming-of-age story that examines a girl going through puberty. Relying on low-cost means, clever filmmaking techniques, and an embrace of modern technology (the girls film TikTok dance videos on occasion), this is a film entirely made by someone tapping into today and pulling off what they need to for the sake of a wild, intelligent, and culturally specific movie (it also features on of the year’s best movie posters). While not entirely the same, it felt made in the spirit of features like A Girl Who Walks Home Alone At Night and Bacurau. These minimalist efforts still show how to tell a story effectively and root it in what the filmmakers are aware of based on location and the time it is being examined. That sort of thing allows smaller films, such as Tiger Stripes, to stand out. Making it stick the landing and go even further is taking the chance to be bold, which this film also certainly manages to pull off.

Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting June 14, 2024, and on VOD July 9.

***

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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