Personally, I’ve already taken in fifteen horror movies this month, but there’s room for more, along with plenty of other releases. This batch of reviews includes an Adam Sandler comedy, a Robert De Niro family-comedy, a Sundance hit, a coming-of-age urban drama, a film led by Joey Pants, and a single-location horror-comedy. The following features reviews for Hubie Halloween, The War with Grandpa, The 40-Year-Old Version, Charm City Kings, From The Vine, and Scare Me.
Hubie Halloween: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Hubie Dubois (Adam Sandler) is a self-appointed town monitor when it comes to Halloween. To the chagrin of almost everyone in town, Hubie promotes safety and playing by the rules, even as he faces pranks and criticism. This year, however, Hubie may be the only one who can save the town as people start disappearing, and no one believes what he has to say.
Review: Granted, the bar isn’t too high for me these days, but Hubie Halloween is the best Happy Madison Productions film I’ve seen in maybe a decade. Yes, Sandler and his friends have an audience, and far be it from me to tell them what is and isn’t funny. At the same time, I’ve gotten really bored, let alone frustrated with the recent years that have amounted to many lazy efforts. That’s largely due to the talent I know most of Sandler’s stable of actors and comedians have, and the lack of much effort to do more than schtick.
To be clear, Hubie Halloween has a lot of schtick too. It’s not as though a film featuring Kevin James, Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, Rob Schneider, Colin Quinn, Shaquille O’Neal, and Steve Buscemi, among other Sandler regulars, are suddenly pulling it all together to deliver a finely-tuned comedy set to crack record books. This is a straight-to-Netflix release, after all. That said, given the promise Sandler made to make a “truly terrible” film, if he didn’t get nominated for Uncut Gems, this one breaks away from the pack of mostly rudderless Netflix releases he’s been putting out.
Operating as a modern-day Earnest Scared Stupid, the key to this film’s success are certain boundaries given to the film that plays to Sandler’s strengths. It’s made for a family audience, with a low amount of bawdy humor. The stuffed cast means no one really wears out their welcome. Sandler actually plays a character, which is more or less a grown-up version of his SNL character Canteen Boy (complete with a gadget-filled canteen), but still allows for a persona to take hole, rather than “Sandler in shorts.” He also allows himself to be vulnerable, which builds into the film’s anti-bullying message.
Yes, this has been done better. Sure, there are funnier Sandler films. That said, there’s a level of pathos from how the town treats Hubie, despite his relentless efforts to help everyone and remain positive. That speaks to something, at least, as far as being able to take away some worthwhile qualities when it comes to a performer who doesn’t push himself nearly enough. At least this time he’s having fun, and it works on a better level. It also doesn’t hurt that Hubie’s screams for every time he sees a wacky Halloween decoration are always pretty funny.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The War with Grandpa: 5 out of 10
The Setup: Based on the YA novel by Robert Kimmel Smith, Peter (Oakes Fegley) is forced to give up his room to his grandfather, Ed (Robert De Niro), who moves into the house of his parents (Uma Thurman and Rob Riggle). To fight back with hopes Ed will give up the room, Peter stages a series of pranks. Not to be persuaded so easily, Ed delivers some pranks of his own with help from his friends (Christopher Walken and Cheech Marin).
Review: This is the kind of harmless movie that serves as a solid distraction. The stakes are so impossibly low that you just hope a good set of gags and spirited performances from this surprisingly stacked cast will be enough to have anyone enjoy this straightforward family comedy.
Having sat on the shelf since 2018 due to its original distribution plan through The Weinstein Company, I was probably most curious about the difference two years (really three, since it filmed in 2017) makes on the age of actors. Fegley, in particular, looked about the same as he did in Pete’s Dragon, so watching this movie now, with the knowledge that he’s like a foot taller in real life, at this point, had me as involved as I was with observing a De Niro who’s a bit spryer now than he is currently.
None of that really matters, though, right? I wouldn’t judge Diary of a Wimpy Kid through the prism of age, just because it’s a decade old, so it comes down to how well this film plays. Ultimately, it’s fine. There’s nothing offensive about The War with Grandpa. Its edgiest gag is a running joke involving Riggle accidentally seeing De Niro naked. The rest of the film is pure silliness, with huge pratfalls and other bits of physical humor designed to make kids squeal, while parents can at least appreciate (feel bad for) some major stars hitting this level for the sake of fun (and the benefits that come with an easy role).
Is there much more to say about the feature? The film attempts to tackle bullying, clumsily, as well as the notion of being able to know your parents and kids because it’s time that doesn’t get repeated. Sure, that’s the sort of saccharine feeling one may expect, only amplified by forcing the film to play up a Christmas theme (the film builds to a younger sibling’s Christmas-themed birthday party). At the end of the day, I guess I’m just happy seeing De Niro and Walken hanging out together on screen just enough to look past how much nonsense is featured in this movie. So, as I said, it’s a decent distraction. It’s fine.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters October 9, 2020.
The 40-Year-Old Version: 8 out of 10
The Setup: After receiving high acclaim as a playwright early in her career, Radha (Radha Blank) is nearly 40 and hoping to have her breakthrough. When not teaching high school drama students, she’s attempting to reinvent herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime, leading to some new opportunities that may challenge the kind of success she wants to have.
Review: There are many great things about this debut film from Radha Blank, and the main one has to be its relatability. Sure, I’m not any closer to being a black female playwright than many people who will see this film, but the pains of getting older, struggling to achieve certain goals, and attempt to figure out the best course for one’s life are all aspects of being an adult that this film handles well. It’s also really funny.
Thanks to the setting and culturally-specific comedy that Blank keys into, there’s a lot of great comedy throughout this slightly too long film. The balance of life-related drama with zingers and other bits of fun both keep things in perspective and never leave the film for too many minutes without some laughs. It’s a big part of how strong the writing is.
Shot in black and white, Blank, a writer and performer, has made a feature calling to mind Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (she served as a producer/writer on the Netflix TV adaptation). Part of what helped Lee breakout with that film back in the mid-80s was his decision to highlight black characters simply living their lives as a part of a cosmopolitan community. Blank proceeds in a similar manner, where the subject of race and gentrification is given attention, but the film works just as well as a look at the lives of educated black people, without dealing with the burden of an “urban drama.”
There are intriguing elements to be found in the play she ends up writing, let alone the relationships she has with a notable producer (Reed Birney), let alone her best friend Archie (Peter Kim). That said, there’s just as much to get out of the time she spends attempting to become a rapper and the chemistry she shares with her DJ (Oswin Benjamin). It all makes for a strong feature about a woman pushing limits to find her voice, even with some slip-ups (and laughs) that happen along the way.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Netflix starting October 9, 2020.
Charm City Kings: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Baltimore teenager Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is desperate to join The Midnight Clique, an infamous dirt bike gang. He’s taken under the wing of the gang’s leader Blax (Meek Mill), who attempts to teach him the value of maintaining a proper bike, let alone staying out of trouble. However, Mouse’s involvement still puts him in harm’s way, as he has to choose between being an innocent kid or dealing with that gangster life.
Review: It’s a shame Angel Manuel Soto’s feature had to be delayed and taken out of theatrical consideration due to Covid-19. For a low-budget feature about street gangs, there is so much vibrancy to how this film captures Baltimore and how it puts urban dirt bike culture on display. One sequence early on features perhaps the best car chase of the year, as we watch two riders outmaneuver two police cars through busy streets. That’s the sort of thing that would have been great for audiences to see.
Thanks to drone cameras, there is a great amount of footage on display when it comes to getting a look at the city, complete with wide shots of these teens and gangsters riding these bikes. Getting in closer, one can see the film’s attempt to turn the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys into a full-on drama. I understand why. The culture of urban dirt-bike riders is an interesting one that’s all about showing off, reputation, and dangerous stunts. The real-life footage we see is wild, and the film can’t help but pale by comparison.
That said, there is a decent if familiar drama taking place. As a coming of age story not too far from Boyz n the Hood or any other similar films dealing with a young lead contending with a life set up for him by his environment, there’s enough to latch onto. Di’Allo turns in a strong enough performance for me to want to root for him to stay out of trouble. His interactions with Blax, as well as Will Catlett’s Detective Rivers, serve as ways to balance whatever potential danger he may be getting into.
Or course, kids will be kids, and Di’Allo’s Mouse makes dumb decisions you don’t want to see. The drama ends up only hitting so hard, as there are a lot of forced moments to remind the audience of the sort of inevitable conclusion it will come up to, accompanied by a message. At the same time, with some good performances, including a very strong Meek Mill, and a great look at a culture alien to anyone outside this area, there’s enough here to win over (or even charm) the right viewer.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on HBO Max starting October 8, 2020
From the Vine: 5 out of 10
The Setup: Burnt out by the industry, a business executive (Joe Pantoliano) gives up on the steady and well-paying job he has in favor of heading back to his grandfather’s vineyard in Southern Italy. Perhaps making wine will be the way to go if he wants to find his way.
Review: This is the second movie of the year I’ve seen that revolves around an older man reconciling with his past and place in life while in Italy. Both are perfectly adequate, okay as a travelogue, and fluffy when it comes to any serious plotting. Not that there needed to be something exceptional to make a movie like this work, but it’s hard to say director Sean Cisterna’s From the Vine ever comes off as anything more than easy. Even the film’s resolution amounts to a man saying a couple of reassuring things to some people before the credits begin to roll.
For me, the way into this movie was knowing Pantoliano had a leading role. Who doesn’t love seeing Joe Pants in a movie? And here he is as the guy we follow the whole time? Sold! And yes, he gives it his all. We watch a character actor deploy all the things he’s good at, with plenty of time to shine. The results are entertaining enough. It’s a fairly small-scale film, so it’s not as though more was really needed, but it doesn’t amount to much.
The most stressful aspects of his life – his marriage, his family, his employment – all things that are resolved fairly easily. Even when dealing with the mid (mid-ish-to-late) life crisis, there’s no real struggle. He sees leaves in the vineyard come to life and talk to him when he’s not dreaming about his grandfather. The advice he needs to hear is clear, and the movie does very little to creep into any area that could prove all that challenging.
Remember A Good Year? Of course you don’t, but that’s the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe film that involved a similar concept. It was a huge bomb because no one wants to see the team behind Gladiator go off to do something so superfluous (it doesn’t help that the film isn’t very good). From the Vine is not all that great, but for 90 minutes spent watching Joe Pants be endearing, I can’t say it was a waste of time. The film may not age into anything special, but it went down smooth.
Where To Watch: Available on VOD starting October 9, 2020
Scare Me: 4 out of 10
The Setup: During a power outage, two strangers tell scary stories to frighten one another. Fred (writer/director Josh Ruben) is a struggling horror author, while Fanny (Aya Cash) is a bestselling horror author. Their differences come out, as the two comment on each other’s story, as well as their place in this professional atmosphere.
Review: There’s a fun idea here, and, in theory, this minimalist approach to filmmaking could mean getting a unique feature that manages to deliver on humor and suspense. Alas, I just couldn’t find myself embracing it for what it was. Even with the notion that Ruben’s script worked to include messaging surrounding how gender dynamics affect the horror industry, I had a tough time connecting to the film.
Sadly, a big reason came down to Ruben. As spirited as he was, and as inviting as he is trying to be, the Fred character was too irritating to watch on screen. That’s doubly ironic considering how Fred is supposed to be irritating and represents the sort of person that is allowed ample opportunities in life compared to someone who has to work twice as hard to receive the same credit. Of course, the fact that he’s jealous of Fanny for not achieving that success is a fitting place for him to sit, which brings me back around to being annoyed I couldn’t get into this film more.
There are some areas where the film shines. Watching Cash and Ruben trade-off telling stories has an improv quality that is fun to see, particularly with the addition of sound effects and implications hinted at through shadows and other techniques. Chris Redd’s pizza delivery guy’s eventual arrival was also welcome, as he added some much-needed energy to the film for a short while. Cash also does plenty to make the film work on her end, working hard to display a certain kind of vibe in the midst of a guy who just doesn’t get why he’s not connecting.
The attempt to create something out of nothing is an interesting experiment for Scare Me to work with, but ultimately an unsuccessful one. The effort is there, but it lacks in having more to say with its overlong runtime. But hey, seeing people acting out horror scenarios is never too far from being somewhat entertaining.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Shudder.