In-House Reviews: Queenpins, Language Lessons, Worth, Kate, and More!

Aaron Neuwirth has new reviews for Queenpins, Language Lessons, Worth, Kate, Karen, and Small Engine Repair.

September tends to be a pretty mixed month for big releases. This week has James Wan returning to the world of horror with Malignant, but other movies have arrived as well. This set of write-ups includes a mild crime comedy, a film focused on an unlikely friendship, a 9/11 drama, an action flick, a trashy thriller, and a thriller adapted from a stage play. The following features reviews for Queenpins, Language Lessons, Worth, Kate, Karen, and Small Engine Repair.

Queenpins: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Inspired by a true story, this comedy focuses on a bored and frustrated suburban homemaker, Connie (Kristen Bell), and her best pal JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a vlogger with dreams, who turn a hobby into a multi-million-dollar counterfeit coupon caper.

Review: This is the kind of film that works despite itself. Queenpins isn’t bound to win any awards or add much to the conversation concerning satirical takes on small-time entrepreneurs vs. big business. However, thanks to the efforts from the cast and the unassumingly friendly tone that makes the film more enjoyable than it could have been, it works.

Seemingly carrying over a friendship formed during The Good Place, Bell and Howell-Baptiste make a fun team. As the film claims this story is based on actual events, it seems pretty clear both performers are just doing whatever they want in developing these characters. The same can be said for Paul Walter Hauser’s character, a loss prevention officer who is determined to unravel this illegal coupon club scheme costing a local supermarket chain millions.

Vince Vaughn’s U.S. Postal Inspector character eventually teams up with Hauser’s character, allowing the film’s second half to focus on the plan to take the ladies down. That could have been an issue, but the film gets so much comedic mileage out of the pairing that it’s hard to resist. It also speaks to the film’s lack of ability to really push for anything all that interesting once the women get their scheme into gear.

There is fun to be had in seeing Bell and Howell-Baptiste clumsily figure out how to launder their profits. Writer/directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly may not know how to settle on a consistent tone, but the laughs are there when they count. If that could have found a clearer line to walk, perhaps Queenpins could have landed a bigger score. In the end, however, it’s not a bad deal.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting September 10, 2021.

Language Lessons: 7 out of 10

The Setup: When Adam’s (Mark Duplass) husband surprises him with weekly Spanish lessons, he’s unsure about where or how this new element will fit into his already structured life. But when tragedy strikes, his Spanish teacher, Cariño (Natalie Morales), becomes a lifeline he didn’t know he needed.

Review: A movie set over Zoom (or whatever) actually makes a lot of sense for a Duplass Brothers Production, and it’s surprising there have not been more of them. Regardless, Morales and Duplass wrote the script for this film, with Morales stepping in as director, and it’s a very winning and unexpectedly emotional look at how a platonic friendship can be as fulfilling as needed.

Thanks to the limited production, the film rests a lot on how capable Duplass’s Adam and Morales’ Cariño are at not only forming their bond but deriving a lot of great scenes based on their current realities. Without cheating, the film has to build up these characters, establish various bits of information about them, and still feel surprising as more is revealed – all within a screen-based conversation. That takes some effort, but I found this to be one of the most successful films to utilize this format.

That’s especially impressive for a comedy-drama such as this. Horror and thrillers have found unique ways to deliver on a level of tension and scares, complete with ways to exploit flaws in the technology. Language Lessons is far more conventional in presentation, but it doesn’t hurt the film. Even with specific uses of editing and framing to maximize the impact of certain scenes, this is still a film about two people talking. Yet, the dynamic is explored in rewarding ways throughout.

Even with an ending point that could potentially ring false, the actors have done what is needed to make the film land in a way that feels right. That’s a nice win for a humble story about a Spanish teacher and her student.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting September 10, 2021.

Worth: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Following the horrific 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Congress appoints attorney and renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) to lead the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. When Feinberg locks horns with Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a community organizer mourning the death of his wife, his initial cynicism turns to compassion as he begins to learn the true human costs of the tragedy.

Review: Every year, on Labor Day weekend, there tends to be an action/genre film released alongside a drama that is supposed to feel important but ultimately feels lacking, which is why it’s arriving in early September and not deeper into award season. Worth is not a bad film, and for this time of year, I understand why it has arrived now. It just ultimately feels a little empty, beyond the solid performances and a chance to provide some information about a specific point in time.

Honestly, a film with Keaton, Tucci, and Amy Ryan will have things working in its favor. Keaton may be going hard on some kind of New England accent, but he’s still quite good as Feinberg. There’s no real surprise to the arc he will have as a character, but Keaton makes all the little moments register as well as they need to. Tucci’s role is even simpler, as it’s not as though he has much of a journey. His character is both in pain and very smart, and all of that is tapped into the way that’s needed.

Perhaps a better film could do more with the troubling nature of its premise beyond making some characters think twice about dealing with numbers. At the same time, any movie that’s pushing straight into the cost of life in regards to the 9/11 attacks means risking feeling exploitative. Director Sara Colangelo is not a stranger to complex and potentially awkward situations for characters to contend with (see her previous film, The Kindergarten Teacher). At the same time, it has to be a challenge to balance being a procedural and an emotional drama.

Worth ultimately gets by on its star power and finds a way to push away from bureaucracy. I only wish, given the event that’s being singled out, it pushed a little harder.

Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.

Kate: 4 out of 10

The Setup: When the highly skilled Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) uncharacteristically blows an assignment targeting a member of the Yakuza in Tokyo, she quickly discovers she’s been poisoned, a brutally slow execution that gives her less than 24 hours to exact revenge on her killers.

Review: This film has some positives worth noting. Winstead clearly put in the work to pull off what she could during the film’s multiple highly choreographed action sequences. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and the stunt team also went out of the way to make sure the fights were not only brutal but tiring for the people involved. We don’t always get that last part, so seeing it here is welcome. However, the rest of this movie is pretty poor.

Working as a Crank/John Wick knock-off with much less style and no real self-awareness, Kate really tries to play up its cool vibe thanks to its Tokyo location shooting. However, it still amounts to a white woman in a foreign land, gunning down hundreds of faceless Asian characters. Playing a deadly assassin doesn’t make matters much better, as these are essentially people paid to do their job in protecting their boss.

There is a difference in terms of optics when placing this film alongside any other number of action films featuring hordes of henchmen being wiped out. That said, even putting aside the bad look that could easily be fixed with either a different lead performer or a cleverer use of location as some sort of commentary, the film is still lousy. The story is a mix of everything you’ve seen before, down to the veteran mentor (Woody Harrelson), combined with a nonsense mishmash of ideas that hardly resonate in any meaningful way.

At least Tokyo looks cool, but then again, it’s not the movie that’s making the city feel that way. The city is doing the work for the film, and everything else involved just exists to be riddled with bullets or covered in blood at various points. There’s passable action to make it watchable, but Kate leaves an ugly mark.

Where To Watch: Available to stream on Netflix starting September 10, 2021.

Karen: 2 out of 10

The Setup: Karen (Taryn Manning), a racist white woman, makes it her personal mission to displace the new Black family (Cory Hardrict and Jasmine Burke) that has just moved in next door to her in an Atlanta suburb.

Review: This movie feels like a dare, both in terms of getting made and being watched. There’s a way to make something worthwhile out of this if a crafty director had a stronger vision for this premise. Alas, Coke Daniels was not up to the challenge of applying any critical thinking to the discussion. Instead, he proceeds to badly direct a movie about a “Karen” named Karen.

For the first half-hour, the movie is doing what one figures it needs to. Manning grasps hard onto the role of a woman who takes every opportunity to indulge her racists urges to control her surroundings in awful ways matching up to the various viral videos of white women being abhorrent to people of color. If the film only relied on this, there could be a decent thriller to mine out of the proceedings, with Manning doing what’s needed to earn a cringe comedy award.

However, between a bad choice in perspective, Daniels’ inability to retain any level of tension in a scene, and the need to explain why Karen is so racist, the movie quickly loses any chance of coming across as anything more than a joke of a film. Sure, it’s ridiculous that a movie called Karen even exists, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to actually capitalize off of the idea in some kind of intriguing way, even on a trashy level. This film doesn’t even live up to those aspirations. It’s too dumb to be insulting, but it doesn’t get away with being dumb enough to be fun, either.

Rather than see the movie, people would be better off asking to see the manager and ask how this film got made.

Where To Watch: Now available on digital and VOD.

Small Engine Repair: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Frankie (John Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal), and Packie (Shea Wigham) are lifelong friends who share a love of the Red Sox, rowdy bars, and Frankie’s teenaged daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). But when Frankie invites his pals to a whiskey-fueled evening and asks them to do a favor on behalf of the brash young woman they all adore, events spin wildly out of control.

Review: Well, this turned into something I did not expect. Based on the play by Pollono, who reprises his starring role, along with Bernthal, what I figured for a series of discussions fueled by rowdy New Englander attitudes and an exploration of toxic male behavior turned into something more akin to Reservoir Dogs. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate, as this is nowhere near as good as Tarantino’s debut film. Let’s say Suicide Kings. One of those enjoyable enough but ultimately empty Tarantino knockoffs from the 90s. With that in mind, what this film lacks in a livewire performance from Christopher Walken, it gains in trying to have something to say (yes, it’s about toxic masculinity). Given my expectations, though, I bit off a lot more than I could chew.

The core story was interesting enough. Watching a hot-tempered dad try to be a good father and remain loyal to his friends is good enough material for a film set primarily in a couple of locations. However, introducing another character and the ultimate reveal of what’s going keeps the audience on their toes, allowing for exploration on multiple levels.

While I’m vague in discussing what happens (it surrounds how 3 characters need to deal with 1 for a bad deed), this film’s greatest asset is its cast. I’m not as familiar with Pollano, but he delivers strong work here (and his direction manages to hold onto a high level of tension). Of course, having Bernthal and Wigham means having plenty of character actor muscle to tool around with. They both deliver the goods, along with Jordana Spiro, seemingly trying to make this more of an equal opportunity movie as far as how these people act.

Ultimately, what I thought would be more of a hang-out comedy-drama turned into something fairly intense. While the themes are hit hard, which doesn’t always help Small Engine Repair escape its theatrical roots, it does having plenty working for it, making it more than a film in need of a fix.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting September 10, 2021.

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of 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 We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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