It’s a new year, which means a January featuring a mix of smaller films expanding and lesser studio fair. This set of write-ups includes a cinematic musical adaptation of a musical remake, a sci-fi thriller, an animated tragicomedy, an action flick, a relationship drama, and a geeky Star Wars documentary. The following features reviews for Mean Girls, I.S.S., Robot Dreams, The Bricklayer, Good Grief, and A Disturbance in the Force.
The Setup: The popular high school comedy is back with a musical twist. New student Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) gets welcomed into the top of the social food chain by an elite group of popular girls called the Plastics, ruled by the conniving queen bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp). However, when Cady makes the major misstep of falling for Regina’s ex-boyfriend, she soon finds herself caught in their crosshairs.
Review: Given the lack of effort in the trailers to inform audiences that this film is a musical, just based on what was being shown, the initial impression had me wondering why anyone would want a film that is just the same movie but with performers not delivering the lines as effectively. Now, I knew Mean Girls was a musical, and my curiosity always revolved around how that works for a different take on the 2004 film (which I found witty enough, but not on a high tier). Having now seen it, while I can appreciate the effort directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. put into creating splashy musical sequences, my overall thoughts on the film still seem to replicate how it looked from the start.
In 2024, what may have felt biting 20 years ago now feels quaint. Being a musical, that’s partially by design, but with edges that feel sanded off, one would hope writer Tina Fey’s incorporation of things like social media, which didn’t exist back then, would add something new to the proceedings. Alas, not really. Mean Girls plays more like a nostalgic throwback than a proper update, regardless of how universal themes regarding high school may still hold to some degree. Now, playing as a fun reminder of the film and the hit Broadway show could also be fine, but the film still feels like it’s holding back in certain areas.
Rarely does Regina George, for example, truly feel like a ruler of the school. Cady has fewer aspects to her character than before, making her less interesting. However, Auli’i Cravalho’s Janis receives the most new development and stands strongest, while Jaquel Spivey’s Damian has the most fun with his one-liners and quips. Likely satisfying to bigger fans of the previous iterations, but as a victory lap initially meant to go straight to Paramount+, these Plastics have gotten soft.
Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on January 12, 2024.
The Setup: Tensions flare in the near future aboard the International Space Station as a worldwide conflict breaks out on Earth. Reeling from this, the astronauts from Russia and the United States receive orders from the ground: take control of the station by any means necessary.
Review: I like the idea of a film like this, where it’s a small cast of characters and set in a remote location, and yet, on a modest budget at best, we must be convinced of the high concept setting. What could make a significant difference in how effective I.S.S. is comes from how director Gabriela Cowperthwaite handles the idea of a thriller built around a zero-g environment. Given a few exciting moments, Cowperthwaite and her team pulled this off quite well, which also speaks well to the performers’ commitment.
Ariana DeBose is ostensibly the lead and our entry point character, but there’s solid work here from Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Costa Ronin, Masha Mashkova, and Pilou Asbæk cast somewhat against type by lowering his usual intensity. Playing into the natural anxiety that comes from being isolated in space and the paranoia that comes from the unknown, there are classic struggles that take place, and yet it feels fresh and exciting based on the unique location choice as well as the details we are given in a film that gets going pretty quickly and lets its audience catch up. A stellar little thriller.
Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on January 19, 2024.
The Setup: Dog lives in Manhattan and is tired of being alone. One day, he decides to build himself a robot, a companion. Their friendship blossoms until they become inseparable, to the rhythm of 80’s NYC. One summer night, Dog, with great sadness, is forced to abandon Robot at the beach. Will they ever meet again?
Review: This film is delightful. I just need to say that right up front, as there’s a really nice core to all of this, even as the story takes turns that deliberately add tragedy to the good times being had. Writer/director Pablo Berger has adapted this story from a graphic novel by Sara Varon that I am unfamiliar with, but the results are immensely affecting. Stylistically, this is not the most ambitious animation I’ve come across from last year alone, yet it’s vibrant and lively in the way it creates a world resembling an 80s New York filled with only animal characters (along with some robots). On top of that, everything conveyed has nothing to do with dialogue, as there is none. This is a non-verbal film, allowing us to only take audio in through Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score and diegetic music, such as a vital usage of “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. Despite the turns made that affect both lead characters, this is a charming and very lovely film about bonding, loneliness, exploration, and love.
Where To Watch: Coming soon to U.S. theaters.
The Setup: When a rogue insurgent blackmails the CIA by assassinating foreign journalists and framing the government, the agency must lure their most brilliant yet rebellious operative (Aaron Eckhart) out of retirement to unravel the international conspiracy.
Review: Working hard to prove he can still handle the action, Eckhart has appeared in several direct-to-streaming action films as of late, but The Bricklayer may have the highest profile of them all. That largely comes from him being teamed with director Renny Harlin, who may be a long way from his days of hit films like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and Deep Blue Sea, but he’s here delivering perhaps his best effort in over ten years (2009’s 12 Rounds with John Cena is a lot of fun). That said, there’s not a lot to this.
Eckhart broods and milks some fun out of actually being a bricklayer. Nina Dobrev is brought in as his sidekick, Tim Blake Nelson adds a bit of prestige as a very earnest Director of the CIA, and Clifton Collins Jr. does just enough to make the villain interesting. These personalities make the scenes between the action decent enough. Still, it does come down to the big fights, and, sure, in a post-John Wick world, as much as this feels like a knock-off, it’s one of the more confident ones not involving Michael Jai White or Scott Adkins. The film is still too wobbly to earn higher marks, but it has its moments.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and available on VOD.
The Setup: Marc (Dan Levy) was content living in the shadow of his larger-than-life husband, Oliver (Luke Evans). But when Oliver unexpectedly dies, Marc’s world shatters, sending him and his two best friends, Sophie (Ruth Negga) and Thomas (Himesh Patel), on a soul-searching trip to Paris that reveals some hard truths they each need to face.
Review: I get the appeal of calling this film a comedy-drama, but this is a movie dealing with a man’s grief and how his friends attempt to help him, even amid the extended drama that comes from new revelations. There are scattered laughs throughout, much like any drama that knows it can’t simply allow the audience to observe a charismatic cast and never have fun with them. However, this is still a film rooted in a serious storyline. That’s not exactly what holds me back from embracing Daniel Levy’s featured directorial debut more, but anyone expecting a bevy of wit from the Schitt’s Creek star may be disappointed (humorously awkward cameo by Kaitlyn Dever notwithstanding).
With that in mind, there is good work from the people involved, particularly Negga. That said, Levy certainly does cater to his character’s self-absorption, which is appropriate for what he’s going through but a bit much for a film that could use time to breathe through more use of the supporting players. Ultimately, the film works thanks to the strengths of its best moments, and for being a film about mourning, it is still breezy enough as a streaming watch.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: In 1978, filmmaker George Lucas was talked into cashing in on the Star Wars craze by producing a holiday variety TV special. What could possibly go wrong? ANSWER: Everything…
Review: Star Wars fans and pop culture trivia nerds alike are very familiar with the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special that aired on CBS back in 1978. Even if you haven’t seen it, its reputation has grown as being this terrible thing that happened once (and is, of course, the only controversial thing to ever happen involving Star Wars). This documentary from directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak is simply a look at what this special was, the context surrounding it, and the legacy it has held onto. There’s not much new insight for those already aware of the special. Still, for newcomers, there’s certainly value in that regard, and it’s not as though there isn’t any entertainment to come from this deep dive.
Interview-wise, the usual suspects turn up. Kevin Smith and Seth Green, among others, offer their two cents. However, there are some interviewees who were involved in the special, offering their takes on what happened amid the various old clips of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill sharing their remorse. It is more of a fun way to examine an oddball television event rather than anything with more meat to it, but it is enjoyable.
Where To Watch: Now available on digital and VOD.