In-House Reviews: Vacation Friends, Wild Indian, Yakuza Princess, and More!

Aaron Neuwirth has reviews for Vacation Friends, Wild Indian, Yakuza Princess, Zone 414, Really Love, and We Need to Do Something.

This week’s big release is another Marvel Studios film, Shang-Chi. With that in mind, nothing like another set of smaller films to counter what the majors are putting out. This set of write-ups includes a buddy comedy, a slow-burn drama, a comic book movie, a Blade Runner riff with Guy Pearce, a black-centric drama, and a horror film with a twist. The following features reviews for Vacation Friends, Wild Indian, Yakuza Princess, Zone 414, Really Love, and We Need to Do Something.

Vacation Friends: 5 out of 10

The Setup: A couple (Lil Rel Howery and Yvonne Orji) meets up with a thrill-seeking couple (John Cena and Meredith Hagner) while on vacation in Mexico. The former let their inhibitions get the better of them, but despite wanting to leave that behind them, the friendship takes an awkward turn when the party couple meets back up with them months later.

Review: This feels like one of the ultimate examples of a light comedy that gets by purely on energy. It’s not particularly good, which is disappointing given how strong the film’s first act is, but it’s still not entering the realm of bad. Honestly, it’s refreshing to see a movie initially intended as a studio release, to engage in raunchy shenanigans that don’t delve into dark territory or heavy themes. Vacation Friends avoids that almost entirely in favor of seeing a series of goofy events held together mainly by what Cena and Howery put into it.

It is specifically these two who are worth highlighting, but that’s not to shortchange Orji and Hagner. Hagner, in particular, gets to play around a lot with being a similar type to what’s Cena’s putting out there. With that in mind, it really is Cena who is looking at a chance to go wild in a role with his considerable goofball energy. Given that comedic Cena is the version I prefer, it’s neat to see him explore whatever limits he has as an actor here. Meanwhile, Howery is more of the straight man, but he has so thoroughly proven himself to be an effective comedic foil that it was plenty of fun seeing him slowly be unleashed.

However, this first portion of the film, set in Mexico, delivers the film’s biggest laughs. There’s an over-the-top vibe that doesn’t require additional support, and the film is at its most pure as far as exploring the dynamics of these characters. Complicating matters with the film’s main thrust, which involves loud, uninvited guests at a wedding is less enjoyable. There are still, but the creative spark has its limits as far as seeing where this is all going.

Viewing Vacation Friends purely as a hangout film, this is an easy enough streaming/cable TV watch. That may sound dismissive, but at the same time, having a low-stakes, straightforward comedy with likable stars is not the worst way to spend one’s time. I wish the film was more consistent by either keeping up a certain extreme level or doing more to subvert expectation, but I was still amused by most of what I saw. So, I may not want to keep hanging out with these friends, but it led to a few good memories.

Where To Watch: Now available on Hulu.

Wild Indian: 7 out of 10

The Setup: Two Native American men (Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer) learn to confront a traumatic secret they share involving the savage murder of a schoolmate. After years of separation following wildly divergent paths, they must finally confront how their traumatic secret has irrevocably shaped their lives.

Review: On the one hand, Wild Indian is a slow-burn of a film, focusing on showing the psychological effects life’s circumstances have had on two Native American men. There are ways these men are the same and other aspects that separate them. And yet, while very focused, it feels as though the film can hold back from more directly saying something about the themes it is trying to explore.

However, on the other hand, this film feels like a strong showcase for Spencer, but especially Greyeyes, who has become more prolific in recent years, with performances spanning across different genres. Wild Indian feels like one of his most complex performances yet, as his character holds so much back. It’s understandable given the extended prologue setting up this film, but as an adult, his inscrutable nature creates a level of unease for the audience.

While I had expected writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine to delve more into, frankly, the condescension and other unwelcome elements afforded to people like Greyeyes’ Makwa and how that has affected his state of being, in addition to his upbringing, the simmering tension involving the relationship between him and his childhood friend led to something different. I liked that, and, in the time since viewing the film, I’ve found a lot to appreciate in how it makes certain choices that are less reflective of ethnicity and systemic issues and more focused on human nature, guilt, and moral flexibility.

All of this can lead to some crafty filmmaking it handled properly. Corbine found a lot of good notes to play as far as turning something quite intimate into an engaging thriller.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD starting September 3, 2021.

Yakuza Princess: 4 out of 10

The Setup: Set in the Japanese community of Sao Paulo in Brazil, an orphan (Masumi) learns she is the heiress to half of the Yakuza crime syndicate and forges an uneasy alliance with an amnesiac stranger (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who possess an ancient sword that binds them. Together, they will unleash war against the other half of the syndicate who wants her dead.

Review: This should be more fun, right? I’m not familiar with the graphic novel, Samurai Shiro, but the premise alone sets up something that feels like it should be alive with pulpy dialogue and more wild action. Understandably, Yakuza Princess is a film made at a certain budget level, but why did it need to be so self-serious? I’m not sure what that thought process was, but it really took away from a film with a good hook.

I’ll say this – the setting is terrific. I was not aware of Brazil having a substantial Japanese community in Sao Paulo, but that was not only a cool thing to learn but a great way to lead into a unique setting for a gangster story involving the Yakuza. While the action scenes range from okay to having too much editing, some moments do well to give a sense of place that I really appreciated.

Alas, there’s only so much to do in a story that takes its time to accomplish more with its premise. While I’m all for character development, the nature of this story really suggests kicking it off a lot sooner than it does. It’s a long 30-ish minutes before the thrust of the plot kicks into gear in a way that had me feeling invested in where all this was going.

To her credit, singer/actress Masumi holds her own on screen. If this is the start of an action franchise, I can see room to grow, but there is a presence here establishing her as a warrior woman to be reckoned with. Meyers is in an intriguing position as an amnesiac, but Tsuyoshi Ihara has the most fun as a mob boss/assassin trying to get a job done until things get way more complicated.

I wish there were enough action or fun moments to lean on to find more to recommend, but Yakuza Princess fails to a certain kind of DTV action movie expectation by not pushing on the buttons to deliver a more entertaining experience, opting for weightiness instead. A shame, as there’s something to this that could have cut it up a lot better.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD starting September 3, 2021.

Zone 414: 4 out of 10

The Setup: Set in the near future in a colony of state-of-the-art humanoid robots, when its creator’s daughter goes missing, he hires private investigator David Carmichael (Guy Pearce) to bring her home. David teams up with Jane (Matilda Lutz), a highly advanced and self-aware A.I., to track down the missing daughter.

Review: If you’re going to rip-off a movie, taking from one of the best is not the worst idea. Granted, director Andrew Baird may be calling it homage, and the film is certainly doing its part to feel honorable instead of staking claim as a true-blue original. With that in mind, for a movie about self-ware A.I., Zone 414 still ends up coming off as pretty lifeless.

One can’t stay mad at Guy Pearce, though. The guy has afforded himself eternal credit for some of his earlier career turns, and the sort of commitment he brings to all of his projects reflects the fun he seems to continually have as an actor. That said, his detective character in this film is now Snow from Lockdown Space Jail. There’s not much here for him to work with, and the film only gets so far on its production design and other effects.

For a movie that barely hits on the noir aspect that made Blade Runner so rich with life, the mystery does open up the opportunity to see some fun supporting players do their business on screen. Travis Fimmel, Colin Salmon, and the Icelandic Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson are all bringing the energy needed to such a rote story. Lutz also provides what’s needed as the A.I. character.

Ultimately, this is the kind of movie that serves its purpose to a point and has a level of competence that’s fine but not special. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the ideas presented, and the whole ordeal just made me pine for the works of others who have more successfully knocked off Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters, digital, and on VOD starting September 3, 2021.

Really Love: 7 out of 10

The Setup: Set in a gentrifying Washington DC, a rising Black painter (Kofi Siriboe) tries to break into a competitive art world while balancing a whirlwind romance he never expected.

Review: The timing of this film’s release was interesting. Delayed from its original SXSW premiere due to Covid, the eventual AFI premiere led to some strong enough reviews to have me curious. Black films that have enough to say about changing times (in this case, gentrification) but are still primarily focused on characters being who they are and typically starring those of the whiter variety can do a lot for the sort of average releases that come out.

Of course, in 2021, mid-budget romance films, comedies, and dramas are a rarer breed as far as movies that make it to theaters over streaming. So, it’s no surprise to see this film hit Netflix. Again, however, the timing was neat because this is a film about black artists and gentrification, coming at the same time I saw 2021’s Candyman. The horror film obviously has other intentions, but what a great counter-balance to see a similar tale told as a straight drama.

It helps that Really Love is quite good and feels authentic in how it lets the relationships develop and play out. This is the story of relatable people who have specific intentions that don’t always align with one another but can be understood from both sides. Siriboe and Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing work well together, and the small turns from Uzo Aduba, Blair Underwood, and Michael Ealy, among others, help the film feel lived-in and personal.

Dealing with art, director Angel Kristi Williams does a solid job of keeping that aspect in mind in how the film is shot. The clear inspirations that range from If Beale Street Could Talk (though far less heavy) to In the Mood For Love are not hurting either. A great emphasis on how to properly film these characters, low-key R&B, and more go well into the design of this film, and with a story that’s familiar but not overdone, there’s plenty to appreciate.

Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.

We Need To Do Something: 6 out of 10

The Setup: After Melissa and her family seek shelter from a storm, they become trapped. With no sign of rescue, hours turn to days, and Melissa (Sierra McCormick) comes to realize that she and her girlfriend Amy might have something to do with the horrors that threaten to tear her family — and the entire world — apart.

Review: It’s only going to become more apparent, but it’s fascinating to see what filmmakers are coming up with as far as making movies during this pandemic era. That’s not to say I’m all that happy about it. However, I’d rather see creativity prevail in a time of crisis, even when it amounts to an occasionally uncomfortably, sometimes gory horror flick mainly set in one location.

The good news is that We Need To Do Something is pretty successful in providing an experience that is, at times, unnerving and, other times, quite darkly funny. Watching a family slowly lose it has several directions to go, and the fact that those range from arguments to suspense sequences to surreal nightmares makes for a lot of neat visual choices. Director Sean King O’Grady makes his debut here, and he does all he can to keep the bathroom location interesting.

It only helps to have character actor extraordinaire Pat Healy bringing plenty of manic energy as a dad quickly pushed to the edge. That said, Vinessa Shaw provides similarly strong support as a mother trying to keep her calm. And then there’s McCormick, coming off of another clever genre film (The Vast of Night) to explore new territory.

While I did appreciate finding ways to confine this cast to a bathroom, with some exploration elsewhere, the film did run a bit long. That said, some key moments really worked, including one of the best jump scares I’ve witnessed in a while, along with some gross bits that were delightful in that regard. Yes, lockdowns aren’t really all that fun, but doing something can lead to some neat horror thrills.

Where To Watch: Available in theaters, digital, and on VOD starting September 3, 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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