Here’s the second part of my mini reviews for October! Six reviews follow, of the films “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “A Baby-Sitter’s Guide to Monster-Hunting,” “The Mortuary Collection,” and “Rebecca.” All of these films are currently available on streaming services, so be sure to check them out if you haven’t already!
“THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION” (Netflix)
I don’t think Radha Blank could have announced her presence as a filmmaker, writer, and performer more strongly than with her debut feature, “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Loosely based on her own experiences, Blank stars as Radha, a woman who made 30 Under 30 lists as a playwright earlier in life, but is now at a crossroads as she approaches 40. Teaching drama to teenagers in New York while struggling to get her latest play off the ground, Radha finds a new voice as a freestyle rapper. Funny, entertaining, and inspiring, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is an ode to the struggles and success that come with the creative process, in whatever form it takes. It’s also a sharp critique of mainstream art that masquerades as diverse and groundbreaking. Blank is a Black woman, and throughout the film we see Radha fighting for creative freedom in an industry dominated by white people in power. Blank is commanding in front of the camera (she owns every scene with just a look, not to mention she’s an incredible rapper) but also behind the camera, directing, writing, and serving as a producer. The film also features glorious and gritty black-and-white cinematography by Eric Branco. Both on screen and behind the camera, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” makes it abundantly clear that it is never too late to reinvent yourself. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated R. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
“AMERICAN MURDER: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR” (Netflix)
Directed by Jenny Popplewell, this true crime documentary explores the 2018 Watts family murders in an interesting format: entirely throughout archival footage, home movies and photographs, text messages and social media posts. The story unfolds from the time Shannon Watts and her two young daughters disappeared, through the trial and conviction of her husband Chris for their murder. This tragic and chilling story is perhaps most effective in its portrayal of how law enforcement gradually broke down Chris to confessing, and it does portray how abuse can manifest itself in a relationship in ways that aren’t always physical. While the film does trace how Chris attempted to cover up the murder before confessing, it rightly doesn’t try to analyze his motives or get inside his head. But the reliance on very personal messages and videos, especially from someone who is no longer here to speak for herself, feels overly invasive from the get-go, and makes “American Murder” an occasionally uncomfortable watch. Runtime: 82 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 3 out of 5 stars.
“THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7” (Netflix)
Writer and director Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is based on true events, but the film frequently veers more into the territory of Hollywood fantasy. That is to be expected—after all, this film, which is based on the 1969 trial of seven people, most of whom didn’t even know each other, charged for conspiracy by the federal government in the wake of the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, is a dramatization of events, not a documentary. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is extremely entertaining, thanks to its colorful assortment of characters (and Sorkin’s talent for dialogue) and timely, in that protests turning into riots is something we have all witnessing occurring in America this year, as the film portrays the myriad ways the government will manipulate the system to get their way. The story is structured in a compelling way, with Sorkin introducing all the characters who will eventually become the defendants briefly in a montage at the start of the film, then picking up at the beginning of their trial and flashing back to the events leading up to and during the protests throughout. But while “The Trial of the Chicago 7” succeeds as a glossy crowd-pleaser, it feels like Sorkin could have made the courtroom scenes grittier. This is especially evident in regards to the eighth defendant, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panther Party and the only Black person on trial. While Sorkin shows the numerous ways that Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) treated Seale incredibly unfairly, he sort of disappears a ways into the film, and while one movie can only cram so much into its runtime, it feels like a missed opportunity for more hard-hitting commentary on how racism denies so many people of color a fair trial. There are other elements of the film that feel rather contrived, such as the “good” federal prosecutor (Richard Schultz, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who really has made a come-back this year, hasn’t he?) and the final scene, which is enthralling while also feeling like a very clichéd Hollywood ending. Despite its flaws, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” boasts great performances from its ensemble cast across the board, and is still well worth watching for the alternately amusing and enraging courtroom theatrics. The cast also includes Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman and Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, the founders of the Youth International Party; Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, the president of the Students for a Democratic Society and Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, a member of the SDS; John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, the leader of a committee to end the war in Vietnam; Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner; Daniel Flaherty as John Froines; Mark Rylance as defense counsel William Kunstler; Michael Keaton as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark; as well as Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ben Shenkman. Runtime: 129 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.
“A BABYSITTER’S GUIDE TO MONSTER-HUNTING” (Netflix)
Directed by Rachel Talalay with a screenplay by Joe Ballarini based on his book series, “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster-Hunting” may be fun for some kids, but it never feels funny enough, adventurous enough, scary enough, or clever enough, despite a lot going for it in its premise. The story follows Kelly Ferguson (Tamara Smart), a girl who saw her babysitter fight off a monster as a child and has been nicknamed “monster girl” (apparently an insult) by her peers ever since then. Now a babysitter herself, Kelly is swept up into a secret society of babysitters who protect children from boogeymen after the boy she’s watching is abducted by the Grand Guignol (played by Tom Felton). Felton is delicious in this role, playing an over-the-top villain that strikes just the right balance of creepy and funny for a kids movie, but he is just about the only thing the movie gets right. There are weird CGI gremlins, not to mention the fact that the film takes place on Halloween night but doesn’t take advantage of all the possible avenues that could take the story. Some of the set-pieces are neat, however, like the lair of Peggy Drood (Indya Moore), a former silent film star who’s like Norma Desmond with a cat problem, and the inner workings of the babysitters’ society are somewhat interesting. The young actors also do a good job; Smart is a likeable lead. But ultimately, “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster-Hunting” is more weird and bland than weird and fun. Oona Laurence costars as Kelly’s babysitter mentor Liz LeRue. Runtime: 98 minutes. Not rated. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
“THE MORTUARY COLLECTION” (Shudder)
I don’t know about you guys, but I love a good anthology horror film. From “Dead of Night,” the classic British film that popularized the format, to a series of films in the 60s and 70s that included such horror staples as Vincent Price, John Carradine, Peter Lorre, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and many more, some of them can be hit or miss in terms of the quality of the stories contained within them. But “The Mortuary Collection,” a new film that continues the tradition of the horror anthology, features solid storytelling across the board. The framing story that opens the film is set in the town of Raven’s End, in the mortuary of mortician Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown). A young woman named Sam (Caitlin Custer) appears on his doorstep one day, looking for a job. As Dark gives her a tour around his establishment, he tells her a series of stories about those who have died in Raven’s End. I don’t want to give away too many details, but suffice it to say that the four stories contained within the film, as well as the framing story, are all creepy, gruesome, clever, and often twisty, in a satisfying way. They occasionally draw on classic horror movie tropes, but by and large writer and director Ryan Spindell has created something that feels very original, even throwing a dash of social commentary into the mix. The film’s visual style is retro-inspired as well, with practical effects providing chills that are more fun than frightening. “The Mortuary Collection” is a refreshing watch that is sure to delight horror fans. Runtime: 108 minutes. Not rated. 4 out of 5 stars.
“REBECCA” (2020) (Netflix)
Last night I dreamt of Manderley again—although it wasn’t as good a dream as I remembered it. I really, really try not to too heavily compare new adaptations of stories to their predecessors. But it’s difficult not to with a film like director Ben Wheatley’s “Rebecca,” which is almost entirely devoid of all the hallmarks of gothic romance and horror that Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film based on it contain (the story has been adapted for television numerous times since then, but never so notably). “Rebecca” is about a young, unnamed narrator (played by Lily James), who works as a companion for an insufferable, wealthy older woman and has, as she says, no prospects. So when she meets the rich and charming Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while staying at a resort in Monte Carlo and he asks her to marry him, she agrees, and accompanies him home to his vast estate, Manderley. But it’s there that the new Mrs. de Winter is haunted by the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. Her husband refuses to speak of her, despite artifacts of their life together still strewn throughout the grounds, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) obsesses over Rebecca and seems bent on driving the second Mrs. de Winter away. But Thomas’ portrayal of the sinister Mrs. Danvers is the best thing about the film by far. Hammer and James have proved themselves to be capable actors in other projects, but there’s little heat between them here. In fact, I’d go as far to say that Hammer was miscast in his role, but James is good on her own. Despite the lush set pieces and its mostly faithfulness to the novel, the film is sorely lacking in moodiness or an air of mystery. Even the lesbian undertones (Mrs. Danvers is in love with Rebecca) feel very toned down. The movie is watchable at least, and maybe for those who are unfamiliar with the story, it will be surprising. But for those who do know it, it feels like this film is just going through the paces, offering up nothing exciting or new. Runtime: 121 minutes. Rated PG-13. 2.5 out of 5 stars.