Kicking off this review column for 2023, there’s quite a variety of movies out there, given the mix of streaming releases, awards players, and more. This set of write-ups includes a Swedish film remake with Tom Hanks, a period mystery featuring Edgar Allen Poe, a cringe comedy, a French courtroom drama, a gonzo comedy based on a best-seller, a music biopic, a movie adaptation of a stage musical, and a western starring Nicolas Cage. The following features reviews for A Man Called Otto, The Pale Blue Eye, The Drop, Saint Omer, White Noise, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical, and The Old Way.
A Man Called Otto: 4 out of 10
The Setup: Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) is a grumpy widower whose only joy comes from criticizing and judging his exasperated neighbors, and he’s ready for it all to end. When a lively young family moves in next door, he meets his match in quick-witted and very pregnant Marisol (Mariana Treviño), leading to an unexpected friendship that will turn his world upside-down.
Review: Between Elvis, Pinocchio, and this, I don’t think anyone will look back at 2022 as a high point or Tom Hanks. He’s certainly better in this inferior remake to the Oscar-nominated 2015 Swedish film, A Man Called Ove. However, I can still name other, better mid/older life crisis movies Hanks has starred in (the underseen Hologram for a King is one of them). This movie just never takes off in its own inventive direction, making all the work feel redundant in re-telling this story of a grumpy guy who finds a couple of things to eventually smile about. Even worse, much like the pretty lame Force Majeure remake, Downhill, it’s as if studios are being told to “dumb it down,” as all the edges have been sanded off in favor of very obvious, sitcom-y bits to make up the difference. It’s not the worst idea to tell this story again, but with no opportunity taken to do anything unique, it feels like a waste.
Where To Watch: Now playing in limited release, opening wide on January 13, 2023.
The Pale Blue Eye: 5 out of 10
The Setup: A world-weary detective (Christian Bale) is hired to investigate the murder of a West Point cadet. Stymied by the cadets’ code of silence, he enlists one of their own to help unravel the case – a young man the world would come to know as Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling).
Review: Two things have remained clear with director Scott Cooper. Looking at his films, he can get great performances out of his actors. He also takes interesting premises and turns in very dull executions on them. With that in mind, he and Bale must really get along. This is their third film together, following Out of the Furnace and Hostiles. This latest effort should be a slam dunk in the realm of period-set murder mysteries. The addition of a pretty excellent Melling performance (his Edgar Allan Poe is rich with that accent) should have put this in a high league of respectable pulpy fun. Alas, at over two hours, the film feels even longer and misses the opportunity to make this killer case all that interesting. When the film arrived at what felt like a climax, only to reveal another 45 minutes, I knew I was in trouble. What could have been another Sleepy Hollow instead felt like it was barely escaping From Hell.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Drop: 4 out of 10
The Setup: A married couple (Anna Konkle and Jermaine Fowler) face a major test when one of them drops a baby during a tropical island wedding.
Review: This is one of those comedies that has exactly what it needs to be a solid mix of funny and clever, yet misses the mark on at least one of those things. In this case, it’s the humor. There is a cringey yet funny premise here, as it opens with an incident setting a tone for what should have been a fun getaway, and yet the laughs dry up very quickly as we watch the cast struggle to improv their way through 90 minutes of what should only feel like torture for those on vacation. Konkle and Fowler are joined by comedic players Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Robin Thede, Aparna Nancherla, and Joshua Leonard, among others, but nothing ever quite takes off. The way it feels like it should. Some bits do end up landing about as well as they can, but even with The Drop trying to also aim for some insightful commentary, nothing’s really enough for this one.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Hulu starting January 13, 2023.
Saint Omer: 8 out of 10
The Setup: Young novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) attends the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), a young woman accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter by abandoning her to the rising tide on a beach in northern France. But as the trial continues, the accused’s words and witness testimonies will shake Rama’s convictions and call into question our judgment.
Review: France’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar is an interesting update on Medea as far as how it literalizes the story for the sake of comparing the trial to the events of Euripides’ Greek tragedy. It’s based on an actual French court case, and as an American, I’m once again fascinated to watch the legal system play out in another country. With that in mind, one of the striking choices made by director/co-writer Alice Diop is to show extended cross-examination sequences that practically play out in real-time. This is not exactly a showy film, and with its deliberate pace, it could test the patience of some. Still, I was intrigued by the emotions, expressions, and knowing looks provided by stars Kagame and Malanga throughout. The build to one particular shared moment between the two, who are in no real way connected, feels like its own small accomplishment, even if the film pushes harder on other areas regarding a woman’s immigrant experience.
Where To Watch: Opening in select theaters on January 13, 2023.
White Noise: 7 out of 10
The Setup: A contemporary American family during the 1980s attempts to deal with the mundane conflicts of everyday life while grappling with the universal mysteries of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world.
Review: It feels good that I’ve sat with this film (and seen it twice) at this point. Feeling like another movie supporting the idea that features are not required to be fully-digested with just one watch, I’ve come to enjoy how much I’ve grappled with what director Noah Baumbach has done with this adaptation of Don Delillo’s novel. More sentimental than anyone may expect from the once notably acerbic filmmaker, being given a blank check from Netflix has also led to this being his most stylish directorial effort by default (sorry, Frances Ha). Still, this is a bizarre movie that’s hard to describe, yet often funny, and fits with some sturdy performances from lead Adam Driver, among others. Not hurting at all is the extended music video ending, featuring “new body rhumba” by LCD Soundsystem, the best soundtrack jam of 2022 that’s not “Naatu Naatu.”
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on White Noise.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody: 6 out of 10
The Setup: A look at the life and music of Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie), one of the greatest female R&B pop vocalists of all time, tracking her journey from obscurity to musical superstardom.
Review: Nothing I say here will make Kasi Lemmons’ I Wanna Dance With Somebody any less of what I call a “Wikipedia Movie.” It takes all the major checkpoints of Whitney Houston’s life and commits them to film. It can’t be “wrong” because that’s not how judging film works, but it can feel very uninspired. That said, I can’t deny what this film is attempting to do, which is construct a crowd-pleasing take on the life of Whitney Houston, even as it grapples with the negative aspects of her life, and her fall as a talented artist pushed into bad scenarios. At nearly two and a half hours, this film is also way too long, but credit where it’s due, Ackie shines as Houston, and Stanley Tucci is plenty great as her manager, Clive Davis. For anyone needing more, the documentary Whitney certainly provides a more interesting dive. As a biopic, this film is entirely satisfactory without ever tipping into being offensively bad in how it restructures events compared to the Queen movie that tried to get away with a lot more.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical: 7 out of 10
The Setup: An extraordinary girl (Alisha Weir) with a sharp mind and vivid imagination takes a daring stand at school and home to change her story — with miraculous results.
Review: Putting this on, I had no knowledge of what to expect from a musical adaptation of Matilda. I’m a fan of the story and the Danny DeVito-directed 90s film, but I haven’t seen anything from the stage show. I am, however, quite clear on the understanding that Roald Dahl adaptations tend to go well (seriously, the late author’s track record for film adaptations is far better than Stephen King, for example). This musical is about just as good as the previous adaptation. Nothing revolutionary, but it works as a fun (if a bit long) coming-of-age tale focused on an extraordinary young girl and how she deals with greedy parents and a nasty school principal. The dark humor (for a kid’s story) remains intact, Emma Thompson is having a ball as the villain, and Lashana Lynch provides solid support as the much nicer Miss Honey. I enjoyed the songs well enough, even if only one or two were truly memorable (“Revolting Children” is obviously a hit). All in all, Matilda‘s back, and she’s still pretty good (if a bit naughty).
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Old Way: 5 out of 10
The Setup: When an outlaw and his gang put Colton Briggs (Nicolas Cage), a cold-blooded gunslinger turned respectable family man, and his family in peril, he’s forced to take up arms with an unlikely partner — his 12-year-old daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).
Review: The novelty of Nicolas Cage starring in his first western can only take a film so far. That’s not in reference to the story but the direction. Brett Donowho has seen his share of westerns, but there’s a real mixed bag when observing the look of this film. Granted, so many westerns have been made due to being notably cheaper to make, but while this may be a step above a lot of DTV Cage films, it still feels like it’s coming from a lower tier of filmmaker as far as creating an authentic western look. Still, the plot is enjoyable enough, though the film desperately needs a better villain performance. Cage, however, throws on his spurs and is in fine form. Armstrong is also quite good at playing the emotionally stunted daughter. If I were to judge this film merely by how the final shootout goes, I can’t deny it has the right kind of cool factor. I still just wish the movie had more going for it in the aesthetics.
Where To Watch: Now playing in limited release.