We are now entering spooky season, and it seems like this week is about providing a warm-up, given the releases of Smile, as well as two family-friendly horror flicks. That said, plenty of other options out there as well. This set of reviews includes a sequel to a cult favorite, a TV reboot of an old sitcom, a revolutionary-themed action-thriller, a horror prequel, a documentary about one of the great actors, a revenge thriller, a hip-hop drama, and a period film. The following features reviews for Hocus Pocus 2, The Munsters, Athena, Pearl, Sidney, Lou, On the Come Up, and A Jazzman’s Blues.
The Setup: Three young women accidentally bring back the Sanderson Sisters (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy) to modern day Salem and must figure out how to stop the child-hungry witches from wreaking havoc on the world.
Review: Sometimes, there’s just not much use in trying to drive a point home. 1993’s Hocus Pocus was a mediocre film not really appreciated in its initial release, only to become a cult favorite horror-lite feature. It’s now 29 years later, and thanks to the advent of Disney having its own streaming service, the studio can afford to deliver a straight-to-streaming sequel. As stated, while effort was put in, and there are certainly ways to critique this film on a deeper level, it all feels so harmless to me. I can’t say I was much of a fan of what I saw, but it is amusing to see Midler contend with today’s younger generation. There’s a reason she’s been a star for years. Parker and Najimy are along for the ride as well and pull off the same basic schtick as seen the first time around. Even the story has little that’s new to offer beyond focusing more on the power of friendships/sisterhood and other easily digestible themes (and obviously, there’s another grand musical number). Not really for me, but ideally, the fans will be satisfied.
Where To Watch: Streaming on Disney+ starting September 30, 2022.
The Setup: Lily is a typical 150-year-old lovelorn vampire looking for the man of her nightmares — until she lays her eyes on Herman, a 7-foot-tall green experiment with a heart of gold. It’s love at first shock as these two ghouls fall fangs over feet for each other in a Transylvanian romance. Unfortunately, it’s not all smooth sailing in the cemetery as Lily’s father has other plans for his beloved daughter’s future, and they don’t involve her new bumbling beau.
Review: Given Rob Zombie’s massive fandom for the original sitcom, I wanted to see all the people who seem to dislike Zombie on some general principle be proven wrong. Despite the clear talent he’s shown in his best films (The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween II, The Lords of Salem), the trailer for The Munsters pretty much soured any expectations. However, now that the actual film has arrived, I can certainly admire what Zombie is going for. Even on a budget (and while dealing with pandemic restrictions), this is very much Zombie’s personal love letter to The Munsters. I can’t say it’s a stunningly accurate recreation, but there’s a scrappiness here that goes well with the wonderfully colorful feature that at least looks a whole lot better than its trailer (give or take a few underwhelming settings). Despite a commendable performance by Jeff Daniel Phillips as Herman, the humor is pretty hit or miss depending on the mood, and Sheri Moon Zombie seems to be aiming a bit too much for dinner theater to properly deliver on Lily. However, a weird energy made this (much too long) film kind of work for me more than it didn’t. It won’t win over Zombie haters, but it’s the best Transylvanian romantic comedy I’ve seen this year.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix and available on Blu-ray.
The Setup: After the death of his youngest brother following an alleged police altercation, Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is called back from the frontline to find his family torn apart. Caught between his younger brother Karim’s (Sami Slimane) desire for revenge and the criminal dealings of his older brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), Abdel struggles to calm the rising tensions. As the situation escalates, their community, Athena, is transformed into a fortress under siege, becoming a scene of tragedy for both the family and beyond.
Review: Athena is simply one of the best films of the year. An explosive opening featuring an elaborate shot designed to feel like one long take, as we watch the beginning of a revolution taking place, will easily earn plenty of acknowledgment, but the rest of the film never lets up. This is an angry urban drama full of fireworks and violence as it contends with the long-ignored lower classes of France. Director Romain Gavras is doing more than just putting an ambitious and wildly energetic film on his resume; he’s delivering something sensational, often quite grim, and of the moment. Its immersive nature is only aided further by the choices to flip around perspectives, adding further context to subjects that include police brutality, racism, and more. Perhaps one could argue this is exploitation of serious topics, given how gorgeous the cinematography is, but I see it being just as important to find a way to help this subject matter stand out when these sorts of problems remain relevant so many years after La Haine, The Battle of Algiers, and other similarly stylish looks at the French identity and resistance.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: Trapped on her family’s isolated farm, Pearl must tend to her ailing father under her devout mother’s bitter and overbearing watch. Lusting for a glamorous life like she’s seen in the movies, Pearl finds her ambitions, temptations, and repressions all colliding.
Review: While X found director Ti West delivering one of his most mainstream efforts that still saw the filmmaker addressing specific ideas filtered through the lens of a grimy 70s flick, Pearl is a whole other concept that just so happens to be set in the same universe. A24 has decided to step into the world of horror franchises now (a follow-up to X has now been teased as well), but this second entry will be tough to match in terms of character intensity. Focusing on a much younger Pearl (the villain of the 70s-set film), Mia Goth makes her play at turning in the latest genre performance worthy of praise generally afforded to non-gore-filled dramas. Working as an inverse of a slasher film, West may spend plenty of time exploring this macabre tale of a woman pushed to extremes, but it is filmed in a manner inspired by glorious technicolor, recreating the look and sound of the golden age of cinema. It’s a pretty inspired way to deliver an origin story.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: From producer Oprah Winfrey and directed by Reginald Hudlin, this revealing documentary honors the legendary Sidney Poitier and his legacy as an iconic actor, filmmaker, and activist at the center of Hollywood and the Civil Rights Movement. Featuring candid interviews with Harry Belafonte, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Spike Lee, and many more, the film is also produced by Derik Murray, in close collaboration with the Poitier family.
Review: It should be stated up front that Poitier was still alive during the initial production of this documentary. As a result, he is often addressing the camera directly to talk about his life. Having been off the screen for so long, and now with him having passed, there’s something special as a viewer with no other connection beyond the screen to see Poitier for a final time. That also makes it unfortunate that I do not have more to say regarding offering praise for this production. Despite the presence of his family, friends, peers, and admirers, the team behind this look at the life of an iconic and inspirational actor chooses not to offer any more than what can be gleaned in a general sense. It’s a relatively straightforward presentation of Poitier’s life, featuring little anecdotes here and there, obviously relying on race and his position as an activist to further offer more significance. However, as classy and approachable as a documentary like this is, I wish it could have chosen to challenge its audience more by digging further in. It’s a nice love letter, but more a reminder of his greatness as opposed to a deeper understanding of an important cultural figure.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Apple TV+.
The Setup: Thinking she’d put her dangerous past behind her, Lou (Allison Janney) finds her quiet life interrupted when a desperate mother (Jurnee Smollett) begs her to save her kidnapped daughter. As a massive storm rages, the two women risk their lives on a rescue mission that will test their limits and expose dark and shocking secrets from their pasts.
Review: With deadpan quips helping to propel the very talented Janney to an Oscar win, obviously, the next step would be finding a discarded script for a Liam Neeson action movie and running with it. No, that’s not the actual origin for Lou, but in the realm of “older actors who beat younger people to a pulp,” Janney still equips herself quite well in a film that’s pretty solid as a brooding thriller. It’s a bit too long, but the staging of the story does what’s needed to keep up the excitement. Little needs to be done to prove Janney is up for this task, but the cold shoulder she gives to her co-star Smollett is just right in the early scenes. There’s a proper arc, complete with twists and turns, to make their team-up worthwhile. Does the film rely on a convoluted backstory to make some of its points? Sure, but there’s still enough going on to make this a suitably fun movie to watch as a slightly above-average streaming original.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: The story of Bri, a gifted 16-year-old rapper who attempts to take the battle rap scene by storm to lift up her family and do right by her father’s legacy — a local hip hop legend whose career was cut short by gang violence. But when her first hit song goes viral for all the wrong reasons, she finds herself torn between the authenticity that got her this far and the false persona the industry wants to impose upon her.
Review: Certain elements genuinely stand out in the right way, making it all the more unfortunate that On the Come Up ends up coming up short on delivery. Jamila C. Gray is a strong find as the film’s lead, and not just because of her resemblance to Sanaa Lathan, who plays her mother, in addition to this being her feature directorial debut. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is also very good as Bri’s aunt, who provides support in various ways regarding the life being chosen. However, this story lacks the urgency needed to dig into what it wants to say about urban communities plagued by various troubles. Similarly, it can’t find the energy truly required to make the rap battles come alive as I’ve seen in films ranging from 8 Mile to Bodied. The film is based on a novel by Angie Thomas, who also wrote the superior The Hate U Give. On the Come Up has a more singular focus in mind, but as a character-driven journey, it lacks a larger spark to make up for the familiar narrative arc that unfolds.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and streaming on Paramount+.
The Setup: A tale of forbidden love and family drama unravels 40 years of secrets and lies in the deep south during an unsolved murder investigation.
Review: Despite his prolific nature, I have seen very little of Tyler Perry’s work as a filmmaker. I’m not sure if that adds or detracts from my takeaway of A Jazzman’s Blues, but it does feel like Perry is applying himself differently. Whether or not that’s a success is a bit beside the point. The movie runs far too long, features old-fashioned melodrama that doesn’t always click with the style of the filmmaking, and has a central mystery that’s not nearly as exciting as it needs to be. However, the film is often quite engaging, shows confidence in the technical elements, and doesn’t hold back from showing the nastiness of the Jim Crow South. The story ultimately being told runs a bit too much out of gas by its final section, but ideally, Perry continues down this path as far as what kind of effort he wants to put in.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.