September’s streaming releases are largely dominated by some big movies from Netflix, from Charlie Kaufman’s latest and the all-star ensemble of “The Devil All the Time” to the controversial “Cuties” and the crowd-pleasing period piece “Enola Holmes.” Read my reviews of those movies and more below.
“I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS” (Netflix)
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is really the sort of movie that needs to be experienced—it can’t easily be explained. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and based on the novel by Iain Reid, the film is either a masterpiece or an overly pretentious and dull piece of work, depending on who you ask. The film opens with a young woman (Jessie Buckley), who initially goes by Lucy but is called different names as the film progresses, contemplating ending her relationship with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) as they drive to his parents’ farmhouse so she can meet his family. The drive there, the visit with Jake’s parents (played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis), and the drive back and all the stops they make along the way, become increasingly surreal as the film progresses. This story is intercut with scenes of an aging high school janitor (Guy Boyd) that initially don’t seem to have any relation to the main narrative. Names and information change, characters use dialogue taken from other pieces of work, there’s an animated segment, and it culminates in a ballet not unlike the one in the musical “Oklahoma!” (frequently referenced by Jake throughout the film), when dancers representing each of the characters stand in for them to enact a poetic and sad scene. The tone of the film is often foreboding, but we’re never fully sure why. But what ultimately unfolds is the imagination of a man envisioning what his life could have been, and while it borders on being too ambiguous, Kaufman drops enough clues in the dialogue and in his shots to give viewers plenty to try to piece together. The narration of this movie is perhaps one of the most confusing parts, as much of the film is seemingly seen from the woman’s perspective while also not really being about her. But Buckley and Plemons’ committed performances help sell the piece, and the tight cinematography lends some focus to the chaos. And the finale manages to not give in entirely to hopelessness. At over two hours and lacking a clear plot, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” isn’t really an easy movie to watch, and I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed it. But what I did enjoy was thinking about it afterwards, when I was finally in possession of all the pieces and could start to put them together in my mind. For that reason, it has grown in my esteem since my first viewing, and I’m looking forward to watching it again. Runtime: 134 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.
It’s hard not to talk about “Cuties” without discussing the discourse surrounding it. The French coming-of-age drama that is Maïmouna Doucouré’s feature directorial debut (she also wrote the screenplay) premiered at Sundance earlier this year to positive reviews, but when Netflix began marketing the film for its September release on the streaming service, there was immediate backlash from many who perceived the campaign as sexualizing its preteen subjects. Doucouré has said that her film is meant to be a critique of the hypersexualization of young women, exploring how social media promotes these images to young people, who view that as being successful and powerful and try to imitate what they see. The film itself actually walks a fine line, nearly becoming that which it is trying to criticize. The story centers around Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old immigrant from Senegal. She lives in a poor neighborhood in Paris with her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) and two younger brothers. Restless with her family’s religious traditions, she becomes fascinated with a group of girls at her school who have a dance team called the Cuties that is a stark contrast to the modest behavior encouraged by her culture. Amy becomes determined to join them, eventually adopting their suggestive dance moves and revealing costumes while trying to reconcile her identity. The ultimate message of being your own person is joined with a look at the immigrant struggle (Doucouré drew on her own experiences as a refugee). The film makes it clear that it doesn’t condone how the Cuties behave; the final dance competition, rather than being the typical triumphant culmination of all their hard work, instead finds the audience reacting to their twerking with dismay. But in order to convey its message and the struggles that young girls face every day regarding their self-image, the film does have to have its young characters engage in some borderline explicit behavior that can be uncomfortable to watch. Taken out of context, it’s easy to see how many people would find this film offensive; within the context of the film, however, they work toward Doucouré’s critique of this aspect of society. Doucouré makes her bold new voice clear; “Cuties” is frequently endearing and moving (such as the scene when Amy listens to her mother discuss the fact that her husband will be bringing home a second wife) and feels like a very personal story. It also makes a star out of Youssouf, who has an astounding presence on screen, even when she doesn’t have any dialogue, not to mention the rest of its talented young cast. The beginning of the film is stronger than its conclusion, which doesn’t fully bring the story home, but ultimately, the controversy surrounding “Cuties” is largely unwarranted, the unfortunate side effect of a very poor marketing strategy. Never judge a movie by its poster. Runtime: 96 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
“LOVE, GUARANTEED” (Netflix)
Wasn’t it last month that I lamented just how terrible so many of Netflix’s romantic comedies seem to be? “Love, Guaranteed” came just in time. The story follows Susan (Rachel Leigh Cook), a lawyer struggling to keep her small law firm afloat. In walks Nick (Damon Wayans, Jr.), who will pay Susan a good deal of money if she’ll take on his case. Nick wants to sue Love Guaranteed, a dating service that promises its users they’ll find love in less than 1000 dates. Nick is approaching his 1000th date, and still hasn’t found the one. Susan reluctantly takes the case, but of course Nick and Susan become more fond of each other the more they work together. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, “Love, Guaranteed” is about as fluffy as Hallmark Channel’s original movies—that is to say, it isn’t especially good, but its combination of a silly premise, likeable leads, and rom-com clichés make for entertaining and wholesome, if not memorable, viewing. No one in this film is inherently bad—even the seemingly phony CEO of Love Guaranteed, played by Heather Graham—so naturally we root for them, and naturally everything works out for everyone in the end. But as harmless as this movie is, I wouldn’t be mad if Netflix started churning out more like it—especially compared to a lot of what has come before. Runtime: 90 minutes. Rated TV-PG. 3 out of 5 stars.
“THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN” (Netflix)
This sequel to Netflix’s hit 2017 horror comedy “The Babysitter” reunites director McG with much of the same cast as its predecessor: Judah Lewis, Emily Alyn Lind, Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Andrew Bachelor, and even Samara Weaving are all back and following high schooler Cole (Lewis) two years later. Original writer Brian Duffield is not back, however, replaced instead by four new writers, including McG. Perhaps that is a hint as to why “Killer Queen” feels like such a half-hearted continuation of the first film, which was fun, clever, gory, and a solid coming-of-age story. “Killer Queen” finds Cole unable to convince anyone, including his parents (played again by Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino), of the satanic cult his former babysitter Bee (Weaving) was a member of. His best friend Melanie (Lind) is sympathetic and invites him to join her and her new boyfriend for a party at the lake after he discovers his parents want to send him to a psychiatric school. But at the lake, Cole comes face to face with the cult yet again, and has to team up with new student Phoebe (Jenna Ortega) to survive. Like the first movie, this one is high on gore but low on scares, and its silly tone makes it an easy watch. But unlike the first film, there’s virtually no character growth or grappling with the situation, and it feels like the filmmakers were really reaching for a solid climax, but it’s mostly just perplexing, as if the writers were given all these fun characters but didn’t really know what to do with them. It’s possible that “Killer Queen” won’t be the last movie in the “Babysitter” series, but this feels less like a sequel that came about because someone had a good idea for it, and more like a cash grab. Runtime: 101 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 2 out of 5 stars.
“THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME” (Netflix)
If I made a list of my most disappointing films of 2020, “The Devil All the Time” would be a strong contender. To watch “The Devil All the Time,” director Anthony Campos’s film adaptation of Donald Ray Pollack’s novel, is to plunge into a relentless barrage of grisly deaths and morally depraved individuals. The story set in rural America following World War II and to the end of the 50s sees numerous storylines unravel over the course of the film. The main protagonist is Arvin (Tom Holland), who was orphaned as a child and sent to live with his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and his adopted step-sister Leonora (Eliza Scanlan), also orphaned as a baby. In the world surrounding Arvin, religion and sin seem to go hand-in-hand. Arvin’s father Willard (Bill Skarsgard) prayed fervently after his wife contracted cancer. Leonora’s father, Roy (Harry Melling), was a preacher who lost his grip on reality, believing that his faith could grant him powers he did not have. And the town’s new reverend, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) uses his power to abuse young women in town. Arvin is caught between the drive to defend his family against any harm, and the fact that defending them may cause him to do harm unto others. But his is the only character whose morality the film ponders on, and even then only barely so. A side story that eventually intersects with Arvin’s involves a corrupt sheriff running for reelection (played by Sebastian Stan) and the sheriff’s sister Sandy (Riley Keough) and her husband Carl (Jason Clarke), serial killers who pick up hitchhikers. While it is at least apparent in a couple of the characters that their religion prompts some of the characters to commit the violent acts they do, with even these very explicitly bad people, we don’t ever learn their motive. We don’t see them struggle between what they believe is right and wrong. That’s not to mention how extremely poorly the film treats every one of its female characters, who are ultimately nothing but victims of the male characters’ wrongdoings, or whose suffering drives the protagonist to action. And despite the immense scale of its story and its talented cast (which also features Mia Wasikowska and Haley Bennett, both sadly wasted), almost everything about it looks and feels cheap, from its grimy sets to its heavy-handed script, particularly when it comes to the narration, performed by Pollack himself. The performances are hit or miss but largely solid, with Pattinson stealing the movie. “The Devil All the Time” is a hopeless film where moments of joy are few and far between; perhaps if the story gleaned more meaning or more character growth from the despair it would be worth it, but if I was meant to learn any lesson or take any specific message away from this story, I didn’t get it. Runtime: 138 minutes. Rated R. 1.5 out of 5 stars.
“THE SOCIAL DILEMMA” (Netflix)
This documentary from director Jeff Orlowski explores social media’s damaging effect on both the individual and on society as a whole, and features interviews with sources that include professors, former employees of companies like Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest (think Center for Humane Technology co-founder and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, and Justin Rosenstein, co-creator of Facebook’s like button) and even virtual reality founder Jaron Lanier. It would be easy to refer to “The Social Dilemma” as “essential viewing.” It doesn’t really present any information that most of us who are even at least somewhat social media savvy don’t already know, but it does present that information in a succinct and easily consumed format, such as its explanation of the way social media apps are designed to enable the user’s addiction to it. The film touches on that topic, as well as data mining, mental health, and conspiracy theories, taking us all the way through to the current COVID-19 crisis. But the urgency of the film’s message is undermined by its use of a fictional narrative woven throughout the real-life interviews that dramatizes a teen’s addiction to social media. This narrative follows high schooler Ben (played by Skyler Gisondo) and his family as they navigate social media addiction and struggle with everything from self-image and to misinformation, culminating in Ben attending a protest that quickly gets out of hand. These scenes are almost laughably exaggerated, from Ben’s sister getting up from dinner to literally smash apart the jar their mom locked their cell phones in, to an A.I. (played by Vincent Kartheiser) for a fictional social media app constantly narrating everything it is doing to either hold Ben’s attention or feed him certain information. Rather than providing a decent real-world example for the concepts the film is trying to convey, they’re cheesy and actually nearly make those very serious concepts harder to take seriously. If you can get past those fictional interludes, you will likely still glean something of importance from “The Social Dilemma;” mostly though, it feels like a potentially great documentary was completely bungled. Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated PG-13. 2 out of 5 stars.
“ENOLA HOLMES” (Netflix)
Prior knowledge of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective isn’t required to enjoy this immensely fun adaptation of the first book in Nancy Springer’s series. The Enola of the title (played by Millie Bobby Brown) is the younger sister of Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) Holmes. After her older brothers leave the family’s country estate and make a name for themselves in London, Enola is raised by their mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), who passes on her progressive, free-spirited nature to her daughter, teaching her everything from word games to jujitsu. On the morning of her 16th birthday, Enola awakes to find her mother has suddenly disappeared. While Mycroft—the oldest sibling and therefore Enola’s legal guardian in her mother’s absence—has rather traditional values and decides to send Enola to a finishing school, Sherlock recognizes her intelligence. After finding some clues her mother left behind, Enola runs away to London, and searches for her mother while evading her brothers. The story gets a little too tangled the further it gets along; Enola is distracted from looking for Eudoria for a while after she decides to help a young viscount called Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) who is being pursued by a killer. Regardless, “Enola Holmes” is still an incredibly entertaining movie. The mysteries at the heart of it may not be the most clever, but they still have some decent twists, and the journey to reach the solution, filled as it is with hand-to-hand combat, chase scenes, explosions, witty exchanges, and personal revelations, is really the fun part. A lot of the film’s success, however, is thanks to its wonderful cast. Millie Bobby Brown may already be famous thanks to her role on “Stranger Things,” but “Enola Holmes” definitely proves what a star she is. She completely owns the character, from her intelligence to her compassion to her sense of humor and adventure. Enola endears herself to the audience by frequently breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to us (which is maybe less of a surprise when you realize that this film is directed by Harry Bradbeer of “Fleabag” fame). Fiona Shaw appears as the strict headmistress of the finishing school, Frances de la Tour plays Tewkesbury’s grandmother, and Adeel Akhtar is a particularly delightful Lestrade. But the casting is also impressive when it comes to the two most iconic roles. Claflin’s Mycroft easily embodies the conventions of the time period that Enola, as a young woman in the 1800s, is constantly butting up against, even if he isn’t portrayed as being as intelligent as his other two siblings. Cavill brings a warmth to his Sherlock that is forever brimming below the surface of his stoic exterior, and his portrayal of the famous detective (which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate actually sued Netflix over for being too emotional) makes me yearn for more (and this movie could easily be the start of a new franchise, so we’ll see). But don’t be mistaken, he’s in this movie just enough to be a steady presence without overtaking it. “Enola Holmes” is Brown’s movie through and through. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated PG-13. 4 out of 5 stars.
“SECRET SOCIETY OF SECOND-BORN ROYALS” (Disney Plus)
Occasionally, when I’ve looked at the original content Disney has produced or procured for their streaming service Disney Plus over the last year, my reaction has been, “it looks like a DCOM.” This phrase can have a different meaning depending on the context. The Disney Channel Original Movies (or DCOMs) of my childhood, from the late 90s thru the early 2000s, still hold up today as clever, funny, charming, and creative, if cheesy, family entertainment. In this instance, I would mean “it looks like a DCOM” as a compliment. But if I’m referring to the DCOMs from about the mid-2010s up to the present time, it’s a different story. The current DCOMs maybe look a little flashier but feel chintzy, from the cheap use of CGI effects to the ambitious premises that will never live up to their potential in this medium. They lack both the charm and the timelessness of a movie like “Halloweentown” or even “Zenon”; rather, these films feel very geared toward contemporary preteen audiences, a fad for them to enjoy for a brief time before they move on to the next thing and they eventually fade into obscurity. All this to say that “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals,” a new family action movie that debuted on Disney Plus this month, falls into the latter category. Directed by Anna Mastro, the movie is set in the kingdom of Illyria, where young Eleanor (Ashley Liao) is about to take over the throne from her mother Catherine (Élodie Yung) as she comes of age, her father, the king, and his brother having previously died in an accident. Eleanor’s younger sister, Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), however, rebels against the monarchy. She is supposedly punished with summer school after a chaotic night out with her best friend Mike (Noah Lomax), but that summer school turns out to be a rigorous training program for a spy group known as the Secret Society of Second-Born Royals. It turns out that all second-born royals in this world have a unique superpower, and it is their job as members of this society to use those powers to protect the world. As Sam learns to control her power—heightened senses—alongside the other members of her group, a dangerous prisoner escapes and threatens the monarchy. Lee makes a great hero; her talents far outshine the material. The other young actors are good—they include Niles Fitch, Isabella Blake-Thomas, Olivia Deeble, and Faly Rakotohavana— and Skylar Astin injects some lightness into the proceedings as their mentor, James Morrow. But the ridiculous premise never feels as fleshed out as it could be, and reeks of a lack of imagination; it doesn’t help that the visual effects are very poorly rendered. Kids may find the combination of royalty and superheroes entertaining, but “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” mostly feels like it takes itself more seriously than it should. It could easily have been silly, but fun. Instead, it’s just silly. Runtime: 99 minutes. Not rated. 2 out of 5 stars.