Happy Thanksgiving weekend, it’s In-House Reviews #100! Plenty of films of all kinds are here, enough to leave you stuffed. This set of write-ups includes a Disney animation original, a sports comedy, a holiday slasher flick, an SNL-produced comedy, another holiday slasher flick, a sports drama, a game show-themed comedy, an Appalachian survival drama, a video game horror movie, and a comedic rise and fall story. The following features reviews for Wish, Next Goal Wins, Thanksgiving, Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain, It’s a Wonderful Knife, Nyad, Quiz Lady, The Marsh King’s Daughter, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Pain Hustlers.
The Setup: Young Asha (Ariana DeBose) makes a wish so powerful that it’s answered by a cosmic force, a little ball of boundless energy called Star. With Star’s help, Asha must save her kingdom from King Magnifico (Chris Pine) and prove that when the will of one courageous human connects with the magic of the stars, wondrous things can happen.
Review: The team behind Frozen has gotten together to deliver a new musical fantasy focusing on a common theme uniting so much of Disney’s films – wishes coming true. It utilizes an animation style that has a look blurring the line between computer and watercolor animation. Plus, a talented voice cast is on hand to further enhance the work. And yet, all of this feels weightless. While the intention may have fallen in line with celebrating 100 years of Disney, I’d be hard-pressed to believe this film will be among those fond memories. Between songs that sound fine in the moment but are instantly forgettable and a story with very poorly established stakes (people are getting instant wishes granted to them because of a magic-hungry king?), Wish feels like a film that worked so hard on its good intentions from lifting ideas from other Disney fantasy films (and Shrek) that it forgot how to embrace its own unique innovations. As a result, this shooting star ends up fading fast.
Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on November 22, 2023.
The Setup: The story of the American Samoa soccer team, who suffered the worst loss in World Cup history, losing to Australia 31-0 in 2001. With the 2014 World Cup approaching, the team recruits a down-on-his-luck, hotheaded coach (Michael Fassbender) to help turn their fate around.
Review: Back again from blockbuster and prestige film land with efforts such as Thor: Ragnarök and Jojo Rabbit¸ director Taika Waititi has delivered an old-fashioned sports comedy that joins up with generational and cultural favorites like Slap Shot or Cool Runnings Next Goal Wins’ sense of humor is also far more in line with Waititi’s indie films Boy and (personal favorite) Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Blending dry humor, broad physical bits, and quirky characters, this film has all the makings of a familiar sports story designed to make the audience smile, laugh, and appreciate the mild bouts of drama that filter through.
This feels like a nice break for Fassbender, given all his intense work, and he, of course, delivers everything needed as the coach who drinks a lot, gets angry quickly, and grows a heart. Meanwhile, the ragtag football team has plenty of areas to mine something worthwhile from, most notably Jiayah Saelua (Kaimana), the first transgender player to ever compete in a World Cup game. Even while relying on formula as an excuse to lean in on many fun moments throughout (including some subtle comedy moments from some supporting cast members that floored me), Next Goal Wins easily scored for me.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: An axe-wielding maniac terrorizes residents of Plymouth, Mass., a year after a Black Friday riot ends in tragedy. Picking off victims one by one, the seemingly random revenge killings soon become part of a larger, sinister plan.
Review: Back in 2007, Tarantino/Rodriguez’s double-feature event, Grindhouse, had a fun sequence featuring trailers for fake movies from guest directors. Still, we’ve managed to get two Rodriguez-directed Machete movies and Jason Eisener’s gonzo exploitation flick, Hobo with a Shotgun. Now Eli Roth has finally held onto a promise we didn’t realize would be lived up to with his slasher movie, Thanksgiving. The results play things straight compared to the over-the-top nature of that original trailer. I’m unsure if I would have been fonder of a full-length version of that take on this concept, but I can’t say I was wowed by what’s been delivered. Credit where it’s due – Roth loves this stuff. He’s made a horror movie that is basically a modern take on what was arriving so much in the 80s, without relying on cheeky winks at the camera. Perhaps it’s how unlikable I found most of the characters or just the tone of the evening, but while effectively moody and gory, it ultimately didn’t play for me as well as films like Terror Train or My Bloody Valentine. Still, Thanksgiving seems to have the right head on its shoulders, even if chopping it off the way Roth did wasn’t exactly the piece I wanted.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Three deadbeat friends fend off hairless bears, desperate park rangers, and a hypocritical cult leader while searching for a priceless treasure.
Review: The Please Don’t Destroy comedy troupe (Ben Marshall, John Higgins, and Martin Herlihy) have found a fun niche for themselves, going from funny internet videos to having a prime spot on Saturday Night Live, delivering weekly shorts. If anything, it feels apt to refer to The Treasure of Foggy Mountain as their “not ready for primetime” attempt to deliver a feature capitalizing off their chemistry and sense of humor. No, the movie is not very good, working hard to maintain a certain level of momentum for 90 minutes. However, when the film shines, it shines. The best material from these guys tends to stem from their blending of absurdist gags and quickly-timed reactions. When the film takes its time to lean on those sections (their reactions to a cocky hawk come to mind), it’s hard not to laugh at their shenanigans. Still, compared to SNL’s previous in-house comedy troupe, The Lonely Island, Foggy Mountain is no Hot Rod. It’s largely a mixed bag centered around a plot that can’t quite do enough to serve as merely a launching pad for jokes. All of that in mind – Conan O’Brien, as the father of one of the guys and the manager of Trout Plus, an outdoor supply store, milks comedy gold out of all his time, and I’m plenty here for that.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Peacock.
The Setup: Winnie’s (Jane Widdop) life is less than wonderful one year after saving her town from a psychotic killer on Christmas Eve. When she wishes she was never born, she finds herself magically transported to a nightmarish parallel universe. With the murderous maniac now back, she must team up with a misfit (Jessica McLeod) to identify the culprit and return to her own reality.
Review: What if the Frank Capra/James Stewart classic was turned into a Gen Z slasher flick? That could be a recipe for disaster, but y’know what? I had fun with this. For one thing, it gets to the point rather quickly, following an extended prologue. The holiday setting allows for a good snowy look for a film in a genre that often must match its ideas with a low budget. Also, casting goes a long way here. With director Tyler MacIntyre and writer Michael Kennedy, there seem to be intentional choices to have this film resemble Hallmark Christmas movies in its own way and literally casting a mix of horror familiars (Justin Long, Katharine Isabelle) and those who would star in these family-friendly rom-coms effectively blurs a few lines that make this film more worthwhile than one may expect. Add on some progressive ideas, a quick pace, and some solid horror moments, and this works as a fun enough stocking stuffer to check out in between films with grander plans in mind.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters. Available to stream on Shudder starting December 1, 2023.
The Setup: The remarkable true story of athlete Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) who, at the age of 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach (Jodie Foster), commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida.
Review: Having had nothing but praise for directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s 2018 documentary, Free Solo, I was certainly curious to see what they would do with their first live-action effort. At its best, Nyad gets plenty of mileage out of having two terrific performers matching each other and providing interesting context for how Diana Nyad could pull off such a rough feat for a swimmer. However, between characterization that often threatens to make Diana seem too unlikeable and the lack of better ways to continually make the dramatization of all the swimming more interesting, Nyad ends up feeling like a movie that could have benefited more from a documentary treatment. Still, it’s hard to deny a film that allows two 60+-year-old women to own the spotlight as effectively as they do while we watch them deal with every kind of ocean danger, from sharks to jellyfish. Not as great as the actual accomplishment, but this film does find its own ways to work on the uplifting sports story front.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: Anne (Awkwafina) and her estranged trainwreck of a sister, Jenny (Sandra Oh), must work together to help cover their mother’s gambling debts. When their beloved dog is kidnapped, they set out on a wild cross-country trek to get the cash by entering Anne in her favorite TV game show.
Review: I sometimes question my barometer for silly farce, as I’m clearly more game to laugh at some broad comedies than others. Joy Ride, for example, is one of the funnier films I’ve seen this year. On the other hand, Quiz Lady had me questioning where it was working best at various times. Maybe that comes from this tired trop involving comedic mobsters to drive the plot somehow. Really, the joy of this film comes from the way it tackles game show culture, and I wish that it made up more of the film’s overall structure. Awkwafina and Oh have fun chemistry, but the central conceit involving Anne’s fondness for “Can’t Stop the Quiz” is so engaging to me. That even speaks to Will Ferrell, who provides terrific character work as the low-key gameshow host, Terry McTeer. It’s not at all laugh-free, as a lot of goofy gags land, so it’s worth checking out in the realm of random comedy streaming releases, but the price just wasn’t always right for me.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Hulu.
The Setup: Helena, a young mother (Daisy Ridley), must confront her long-buried past as the child of a kidnapper and the girl he held captive when her father (Ben Mendelson) breaks out of prison. Convinced he intends to take her daughters, Helena sets out to find and kill him herself.
Review: Midway through, I couldn’t help but feel like The Marsh King’s Daughter was some sort of best-of collection of ideas from popular paperback novels. Naturally, this film is, in fact, based on a novel by Karen Dionne, and certainly feels informed by other stories involving kidnapped women, abused families, and revenge plots. None of that necessarily means it can’t work though, and while it comes across a bit thin, ultimately, I enjoyed this film. Perhaps that’s due to how well it moves along with this plot. An extended opening sequence feels like the worst version of Leave No Trace and Room mashed together. Then, the story moves into psychological thriller territory that is just as intriguing. Good actors doing solid work easily helps. Ridley feels challenged in the right ways, while Mendelsohn channels another scummy character to strong effect. The stakes are just high enough to have kept me involved, and that’s fine for a decent paperback come-to-life situation.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters and available on VOD.
The Setup: A troubled security guard (Josh Hutcherson) begins working at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria. While spending his first night on the job, he realizes the late shift at Freddy’s won’t be so easy to make it through, as he uncovers the restless spirits and vengeful animatronics within while confronting his haunting memories.
Review: This box office hit may have worked for the young audience who grew up with the games and followed its elaborate continuity. Perhaps even the random moviegoer looking for a slight enough horror movie to pass the time got enough from this experience. Well, I’m still here to say that Five Nights at Freddy’s is a mess of a film that makes me feel bad for those who should be demanding something better. It’s even as though I need the perfect video game movie in order to be satisfied, but I so often see these adaptations taking such bizarre paths away from what worked as a game that it’s hard to justify incredibly simplified entertainment when the option to do something better was available. This film is a mess that tries to plug in too many horror sub-genres and misses out on the inherent fun of having haunted animatronics coming after unsuspecting people. Hutcherson feels like he’s auditioning for an A24 horror film, while Matthew Lillard seems to be the only person who understood the assignment. An early sequence where we watch these mascots come to life and dispatch a group of people shows promise for something better (and the animatronics do look pretty solid), but it’s all for naught. This is about as good as cardboard pizza.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters and available to stream on Peacock.
The Setup: Liza (Emily Blunt) dreams of a better life for herself and her daughter. Hired to work for a bankrupt pharmaceutical company, Liza skyrockets with sales and into the high life, putting her in the middle of a federal criminal conspiracy.
Review: Looking at all the stories of late focused on the opioid crisis, corrupt pharmaceutical companies, and other looks behind the scenes of controversial business folks, Pain Hustlers feels like the worst of them. With a horrible screenplay by Wells Tower that goes out of its way to try and balance what passes for comedy with an emotional tale about the downfall of a company that was so clearly bad to begin with, there’s no sympathy for me to hand out to director David Yates and his attempt to do something not related to the Wizarding World. Honestly, this plays like the movie Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, Catherine O’Hara, and Brian d’Arcy James all made but decided to remove all references to it because they were so ashamed by the results. With such lackluster efforts to make any of this material sing the way a stronger set of filmmakers could, it’s another unfortunate example of seeing a supposedly “important” film get watered down through devices that seem clever but just come off cheap.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.