While this week’s main releases focus on enlarged creatures, there are some other areas worth some attention as well. This set of write-ups an anime basketball film, a remake of a 90s thriller, another comedy-drama telling the story of a major company, an indie road trip drama, a rom-com, and a Jackie Chan/John Cena action-comedy. The following features reviews for The First Slam Dunk, River Wild, The Beanie Bubble, The Unknown Country, Happiness for Beginners, and Hidden Strike.
The Setup: Based on the Slam Dunk manga series, the Shohoku High School basketball club faces a match against Sannoh High School at the inter-High. The achievements that each member has earned, the past that they carry, and various thoughts collide violently on the court.
Review: Already a massive hit in Japan and the 5th highest-grossing anime of all time, here’s a film that completely caught me off guard. No, I’m happy taking in new anime, but to feel as riveted as I was during this somewhat lengthy (124 minutes with credits) journey was a surprise. Having no familiarity with the source material, let alone the 90s anime series, I was delighted to figure out what the structure of this film was as it went along. Centering the entire film around one intense basketball game and utilizing flashbacks every so often to develop the different characters was a genuinely engrossing approach. It was great to find more reasons to care about what was happening, who was involved, and how they were all connected. Helping further was the depiction of basketball. Director/writer Takehiko Inoue chose the right level of stylization here, as it kept the film grounded instead of depicting a heightened reality. As a result, seeing the struggle for our lead plays to win this game was truly a sight to behold.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Joey (Leighton Meester) fears there could be trouble ahead after her brother (Taran Killam) invites a childhood friend (Adam Brody) with a troubled past on their whitewater rafting adventure. When they become stranded in raging rapids, the thrill-seeking trip quickly turns into a desperate fight for survival as someone seems intent on sabotage to ensure shocking secrets stay buried.
Review: This film presents the ideal version of a reimagining. No, The River Wild was not exactly flaming hot IP to go after, but this film retains only the bare basics that involve a group of people on a river rafting trip, and one of them turns out to be bad. Thanks to the work of co-writer/director Ben Ketai and co-writer Mike Nguyen Le, the effort is taken to modernize this premise, push these characters in a way that allows the actors to give demanding performances, and makes strong use of the environment. The results are a tense, effective thriller that serves as one of the strongest efforts in the realm of direct-to-home video releases. Stronger than many theatrical thrillers, and some smart casting here as well.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix and available on Blu-ray, digital, and VOD.
The Setup: The unbelievable tale of one of America’s most fascinating phenomena — Beanie Babies. Flashing back to the ’90s and early 2000s, this is an in-depth look at how the era-defining zeitgeist came to be.
Review: The most inventive idea for this film is its multiple POVs. While Zach Galifianakis stars as Ty Warner, the face of Ty Inc, we watch the events of this film unfold from the perspectives of three women who played a significant role in his life. In the 80s, there was his wife and business partner Robbie (Elizabeth Banks). The 90s and early 2000s feature Sheila (Sarah Snook), Ty’s second wife, and Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan), Ty’s executive assistant, who provides many ideas and receives little credit. Sadly, this unique approach is about as interesting as the film gets. While the messaging is quite clear regarding powerful businessmen taking all the glory, providing little regard, let alone casting aside the women in their lives, the film still amounts to little beyond feeling like a standard biopic with neat editing choices. (Not to mention how most of the female characters appear to be composites). Directors Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash have a little bit of fun getting into the world of Beanie Babies by way of nostalgic references, but following Air, BlackBerry, and Flamin’ Hot, this feature just doesn’t have the stuffing to match.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Apple TV+
The Setup: A young woman (Lily Gladstone) grieving for past losses receives an unexpected invitation, leading her onto a solitary road trip across the American Midwest.
Review: In a way, this film feels like an even more independent version of Nomadland. While star/co-writer Gladstone is quite affecting in her role and serves as the center of the story, a surreal blend of fact and fiction allows director Morrisa Maltz to utilize her documentary filmmaking background in an interesting manner. Set during the time of one of our recent pivotal election cycles, as Gladstone’s Tana makes stops during her journey, now and again, the film essentially pauses to focus on one of the random people she interacts with, be it a waiter, a gas station store owner, etc. They provide a monologue that presents their take on life. It’s quite interesting and backed by the continued journey, which is awash with artful cinematography and other personal touches to make this low-key drama unique. I wish the film ended with a bit more of an impact. Still, with Gladstone’s star about to rise, given the upcoming Scorsese film she’s co-starring in, The Unknown Country, as well as Certain Women, show how well she can excel on this scale.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: A year after her divorce, Helen Carpenter (Ellie Kemper) lets her brother persuade her to sign up for a wilderness survival course. Through this experience, she discovers that you have to get lost to find yourself.
Review: Playing somewhat like the movie/story Wild, but with a higher emphasis on rom-com elements and some of the occasional broad comedy, there’s certainly a warm spirit this film wants to impart, but it can’t help but trip over itself trying to do too many things. If it wants to be a story about self-help and rediscovery, that’s fine. Were it to have aspirations of working as a Hallmark Channell substitute, that’s also a way to go. Sadly, between various formulaic attempts to hit key moments and a bland presentation of its settings, let alone the characters, it all comes up too lacking to even feel like an easy enough comfort watch. Kemper has the opportunity to play a role with a bit more of a dramatic side, but even as effective as she may be, writer/director Vicky Wight doesn’t do enough to keep this campsite safe from its missed opportunities.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: Two ex-special forces soldiers (Jackie Chan and John Cena) must escort a group of civilians along Baghdad’s “Highway of Death” to the safety of the Green Zone.
Review: Filmed five years ago and dumped onto streaming, the novelty of seeing Chan and Cena together is a good one in theory, but this film is one of the more “going through the motions” action pictures you could imagine involving these two. Chan and Cena are fine together, though they are hardly a match of other Chan pairings that paid off to a far greater degree. The film itself is riddled with issues related to a heavy reliance on CG-assisted action sequences. A shame, as director Scott Waugh (the upcoming Expend4bles) has shown he can be capable with practical action, and having two big action stars would ideally allow for a bit more flexing in that regard. That is not the case here though. Even if I give in to how much the story doesn’t matter, it doesn’t make up for the visual assault on display.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.