Happy November everyone! I’m looking back on some October releases one more time with the last part of my streaming recap. Read on for mini reviews of the movies “Clouds,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “The Witches,” “On the Rocks,” “Over the Moon,” “Yes God, Yes,” and “His House.”
“CLOUDS” (Disney Plus)
For a supposedly faith-based movie, director Justin Baldoni’s “Clouds” is pretty light on the faith, and the film is all the better for it. “Clouds” is based on the true story of Zach Sobiech, a high school senior who, after a long battle with osteosarcoma, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012. The film follows the usually upbeat Zach (played by Fin Argus) as he tries to make the most of the time he has left while wrestling with the fact that there will be so much in life he will miss out on—including furthering his relationship with is new girlfriend, Amy (Madison Iseman). Zach and his best friend Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter) decide to make an album; their music videos go viral on YouTube, landing them a deal with BMI, with Zach’s song “Clouds” becoming a massive hit. Despite an eye-roll inducing finale, “Clouds” mostly stays grounded, wrestling with a lot of the everyday effects of Zach’s illness that many movies shy away from. One such scene that stands out is when Zach and his mom (Laura, played by Neve Campbell, a real highlight of the movie) discuss his final wishes and what he wants for his funeral. The film isn’t consistent throughout (Argus and Carpenter had good chemistry and a relationship I would have liked to have seen more of) but the parts that work do work, and the result is a film that is uplifting without feeling sappy or insincere. Runtime: 121 minutes. Rated PG-13. 4 out of 5 stars.
“BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM” (Amazon Prime Video)
You would think that Sacha Baron Cohen would never be able to get away with a “Borat” sequel after that film’s massive success in 2006. But while “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” hits a little different than its predecessor, it’s still insane in a way that is hard to watch, but even harder to look away from. Directed by Jason Woliner and shot primarily from the end of last year through the spring and summer of this year, this sequel is a bit more scripted than the first movie, picking up 14 years later with Borat in prison for humiliating Kazakhstan with his movie. But the country’s premier releases him, giving him the task of returning to America to deliver a special monkey to Vice-President Mike Pence and therefore redeem Kazakhstan in the eyes of the world. Occasionally donning disguises, occasionally appearing in the usual Borat garb, Cohen again uses this persona to expose the hypocrisies that exist in every part of American culture. Only this time, while it is still funny, the shenanigans aren’t entirely shocking; after all, we’ve witnessed some pretty horrible, pretty racist behavior in this country lately just by turning on the news or logging on to Twitter. Not to mention that Cohen’s exaggerated portrayal of Kazakhstan and its citizens as backwards continues to be a problem in and of itself. But the best part about this movie is how Cohen steps aside to let Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s teenage daughter Tutar (who follows him to America) have the spotlight. She is hilarious and more than holds her own alongside Cohen, and Tutar’s storyline gives the film an overall message of feminism and women’s rights that is surprising but effective and heartfelt. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated R. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
“THE WITCHES” (2020) (HBO Max)
This new version of Roald Dahl’s novel directed by Robert Zemeckis is, at least, more faithful to the original story than the 1990 film version. It’s also incredibly weird—but is that really the fault of the film if the source material is just as strange? The story is narrated by an adult (voiced by Chris Rock) looking back on an event that occurred in his childhood. After his parents are killed in a car accident, young Hero (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), goes to live with his grandma (Octavia Spencer), a healer who tells him all about the witches that exist in real life. When they go on holiday to a resort in Alabama, Hero and Grandma come head-to-head with witches when they find out that a convention led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) is taking place at the same resort. Hero discovers that their plan to is lure children to them and feed them candy containing a potion that will turn them into mice—and unfortunately, they do just that to Hero. This film freshens up the story a bit by moving the action from England to the American South, from the 1980s to the 1960s, and by casting Black actors as Hero and his grandma. And some of the visual effects, particularly the make-up for the witches, are well done. But it’s just odd in a way that isn’t entirely fun or entertaining for adults, but probably too creepy for young children. Spencer is a delight, however, as is Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager, but “The Witches” is worth watching for one reason and one reason only: Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch. She delivers a performance that is the height of camp, and looks like she is having a great time. I just wish we were having as much fun watching this movie as she seems to be. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated PG. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
“ON THE ROCKS” (Apple TV+)
The latest film written and directed by Sofia Coppola reunites her with Bill Murray, the star of her acclaimed 2003 film “Lost in Translation” (a personal favorite of mine). Rashida Jones stars as Laura, a writer who lives in New York with her busy businessman husband Dead (Marlon Wayans) and their two young children. Dead is gone a lot on business trips, and Laura starts to suspect he may be having an affair. When she brings the matter up to her playboy father Felix (Murray) he insists on trailing Dean and getting to the bottom of the matter. “On the Rocks” is far from the best movie in Coppola’s filmography. The emotional drama between the characters doesn’t feel like it ever peaks, and the film is not nearly as zany as its premise promises. But rather than spend time on screwball high-jinks, Coppola spends time showing Laura’s everyday life in a very relatable fashion, and on probing the father/daughter relationship between Felix and Laura through a series of long conversations as they proceed with their investigation. The result is a film that doesn’t challenge the characters or the viewer, but is light and breezy and funny. This is largely thanks to Murray, who is perfectly cast in a role that requires him to use every ounce of his charisma. Jones, a severely underrated actress, is a great foil to him, but she’s more than just a straight woman to his antics—while they don’t appear to be estranged, it’s clear that the way Felix treated her mother and herself in the past has hurt her. Perhaps most of all, “On the Rocks,” with its numerous scenes of nights out in NYC, grabbing a late night drink or a bite to eat in one of the city’s many famed establishments, will make the viewer nostalgic for that pre-pandemic time when it was so much easier and safer to engage in all those activities. The film also stars Jessica Henwick and Jenny Slate, and features an appearance by Barbara Bain. Runtime: 96 minutes. Rated R. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
“OVER THE MOON” (Netflix)
How did we get to the point where it seems like nearly every animated family feature contains the dead mom trope? That’s not to say that “Over the Moon,” a film directed by legendary animator Glen Keane (with co-director Kahrs), doesn’t wrestle with the subject of loss movingly and unflinchingly. But it feels like it has been done so often now in this medium and for this specific young audience that it somewhat undermines the otherwise quite original story the movie has to tell. The film follows Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang), a young Chinese girl whose has believed in the story of the moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) and her lover Houyi ever since her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) told it to her. Her mother becomes sick and eventually passes away; years later, Fei Fei’s father (John Cho) becomes engaged to Ms. Zhong (Sandra Oh), who has a young son named Chin (Robert G. Chiu). Upset and fearful that her dad is forgetting about her mom, Fei Fei hatches a plan to build a rocket, go to the moon, and prove that Chang’e is real. “Over the Moon” is a Chinese-American co-production, and there’s a warmth and a feeling of authenticity in the film’s portrayal of Fei Fei’s family and their culture, from family dinners to the making of moon cakes for the annual Moon Festival. The animation (provided by Sony Pictures Imageworks) is lovely; this is a 3D animated movie, but a sketchy 2D animated segment at the start of the film depicting the legend of Chang’e stands out. The film has a design that feels more steeped in realism at the beginning but becomes much more colorful and stylized once the action moves to the moon, and there are some fun designs for all the different creatures and characters. But while “Over the Moon” starts off strong and is moving in all the right places, it never succeeds in fully pulling at the heart-strings. An over-abundance of comic side characters distracts from the more important parts of the story, and the budding relationship between Fei Fei and Chin is never full developed. By the time the story reaches its climax, the integral message of moving on after loss feels more preachy than sincere. It’s also notable that “Over the Moon” is a musical, and while the abundance of pop songs by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park are fun, none of them stand out as being especially memorable outside of perhaps the sweet tune “Mooncakes” that Fei Fei and her parents sing at the start of the film. Fei Fei, however, is a plucky and relatable heroine wonderfully voiced by Ang ,and Soo, with her gorgeous vocals, is a fantastic addition as Chang’e—not to mention the rest of the predominantly Asian voice cast. Overall, “Over the Moon” combines elements that are familiar and new to create a film that is pleasant and has some truly beautiful moments, but doesn’t set itself apart enough from other animated movies with similar messages. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated PG. 3 out of 5 stars.
“YES GOD, YES” (Netflix)
Writer/director Karen Maine’s feature based on her short film of the same name came to Netflix this month after an on demand release back in July. The movie, set in 2000, stars Natalia Dyer as Alice, a teenager who attends at a strict Catholic high school in the Midwest. Curious but informed by her peers and Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) that her adolescent feelings are sinful, Alice decides to attend a Catholic retreat with her friend Laura (Francesca Reale) to try to put herself back on the right moral path. Instead, she finds herself tempted by one of the retreat leaders, Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), has false rumors spread about herself, and discovers the hypocrisy in that many of her group’s religious leaders don’t practice what they preach. Despite having only a 78 minute runtime, Maine succeeds at telling a complete story and developing a full arc for Alice. The film isn’t necessarily laugh out loud hilarious, but it does have a sense of humor, and its portrayal of female adolescence and all the awkwardness and confusion that goes with it is genuine (Maine based this story on her own personal experiences). “Yes God, Yes” is further anchored by a great leading performance by Dyer, who endears Alice to the viewer with her comic reactions. Ultimately, it isn’t so much a searing indictment of religion as it is a case for it being okay to open yourself up to other possibilities and experiences. Runtime: 78 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.
“HIS HOUSE” (Netflix)
Writer/director Remi Weekes’ staggering debut feature is an intense examination of the refugee experience told through the lens of a haunted house movie. The story follows Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), refugees who fled the violence of Sudan, ending up in London. The government grants them probational asylum and assigns them a shabby house just outside London. They soon become aware of a disturbing presence in their new house, each of them seeing visions of Nyagak, their daughter who died during their escape. Even outside of its more blatant horror elements, “His House” does a fantastic job portraying both the terrors outside of the couple’s previous life, and in their new one. Bol desperately wants to fit in and tries to assimilate, but Rial refuses to give up their culture. They face condescending and racist remarks from case workers and neighbors, and their house, while large, is a dump. But the scary scenes are handled really amazingly, with Weekes succeeding at building up remarkable amounts of dread by utilizing everything from creepy voices to apparitions, and using firelight in many scenes to contribute to the hellish atmosphere. The evil in their house may not be the evil of their story, however, and while initially I felt that the conclusion wasn’t wholly satisfying for the characters, there is something very moving about making the choice to continue to live with your demons. Regardless, “His House” is a breath-taking example of using the fantastical elements of the horror genre to relay a story about the horrors of the real world; I have a feeling we are going to want to remember Remi Weekes’ name. Dirisu and Mosaku deliver incredibly strong performances, and Matt Smith costars. Runtime: 93 minutes. Rated TV-14. 4.5 out of 5 stars.