Review: ‘The Adults,’ starring Michael Cera, Hannah Gross and Sophia Lillis

July 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hannah Gross, Sophia Lillis and Michael Cera in “The Adults” (Photo by Tim Curtin/Variance Films)

“The Adults”

Directed by Dustin Guy Defa

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hudson Valley, New York, the comedy/drama film “The Adults” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An abrasive man, who is the eldest of three siblings, visits his estranged sisters, who each have different reactions to seeing him after spending three years apart from him. 

Culture Audience: “The Adults” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Michael Cera and movies where not much happens except family members moping, arguing, and acting out bizarre inside jokes.

Hannah Gross and Michael Cera in “The Adults” (Photo by Tim Curtin/Variance Films)

Repetitive, boring and very aimless, “The Adults” is the type of movie that’s overrated by people who think that characters being obnoxious and weird in a movie should automatically deserve praise. This is “indie cred pandering” cinema at its worst. There is barely anything unique or interesting about the movie’s three main characters to justify this movie’s existence. If you’ve seen enough independent films where people act neurotic and argumentative at family reunions, then you’re not going to see anything new in “The Adults.”

Written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa, “The Adults” had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. It’s a very slight film that doesn’t have much going for it except the name recognition of some of the stars of the movie, which was filmed on location in Hudson Valley, New York. The entire movie looks as washed-out as the lackluster tone of the film.

In the beginning of “The Adults,” Eric (played by Michael Cera), who is the eldest of three siblings, has arrived in the Hudson Valley area from Portland, Oregon, where he lives. Eric is in town to visit his two sisters, whom he hasn’t seen in three years: brittle and sarcastic Rachel (played by Hannah Gross) and bubbly and unpredictable Maggie (played by Sophia Lillis). Rachel works as a producer/editor at a radio station called WBSI. Maggie is a recent college dropout; she quit college after a year of attendance and hasn’t figured out yet what she wants to do with her life. All three siblings are unmarried and have no children.

Rachel lives in the house that she inherited after the siblings’ widowed mother died a number of years ago. Rachel is still angry with Eric that she was the sibling who had to handle all the funeral arrangements and the responsibility of paying the house’s property taxes. Meanwhile, Eric tells Rachel: “Why do you want me to feel guilty about how I’m organizing this trip when you haven’t bothered to visit me in Portland?” It’s a valid question that never really gets answered in the movie.

Maggie is just happy to see Eric and gives him a big hug when they see each other again. Eric has been so out of touch with Maggie, he didn’t even know that she dropped out of college until Rachel told him. At first, Eric had trouble contacting Maggie for this visit because, as Rachel tells him, Maggie is currently on “digital detox” where she is on a break from using any electronic devices.

During this visit, Eric spends a lot of time trying to reconnect with some of his former buddies from high school. He shows up unannounced at the house of a former school pal named Dennis (played by Wavyy Jonez), because Eric doesn’t have Dennis’ current phone number. Eric is surprised and disappointed that Dennis isn’t going to spontaneously go out to a bar with Eric, because Dennis is now a married father who doesn’t want to stay out late on this particular night. It’s the first sign in the movie that Eric is self-centered and emotionally tone-deaf.

Eric becomes fixated on getting some of his former high school buddies together to play poker, like they used to when they were schoolmates. After some dreadfully dull scenes of Eric trying to make this get-together happen, it finally does. And it just becomes an eye-rolling slog, as the conversation turns to philosophical questions that get asked and everyone in the group has to give their answers. One of the questions is, “When was the first time you realized death existed?”

Eric has a losing streak during this poker game get-together. He’s the first to admit that he’s extremely competitive. He not only wants to win back all the money that he lost, but he also wants to come out ahead by leaving with more poker game winnings than anyone else in the group. Eric even postpones his plane flight home so he can be the ultimate winner. Later, Eric gets unexpectedly humbled by his obsession to win at all costs.

Meanwhile, Rachel has been dealing with some mental-health issues such as panic attacks and depression. She’s also still reeling from a breakup from an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her, but she doesn’t want to admit to anyone how hurt she’s been by the breakup. When Eric suggests that Rachel has a bitter attitude because of this breakup, Rachel’s reaction is verbally hostile and defensive.

At the radio station where Rachel works, viewers see for the first time the family quirk that’s supposed to be a running joke in the movie. Rachel is having a discussion with a co-worker named Bobby (played by Lucas Papaelias) about what parts of a pre-recorded radio show needs to be edited out or kept in the show. All of sudden, Rachel starts talking in a cartoonish voice that sounds similar to Fozzie Bear of the Muppets. Bobby gives Rachel a puzzled look, as if he thinks she’s being too weird for him. Rachel sees that her attempt to be playful didn’t get the reaction she wanted, so she quickly stops.

Rachel, Eric and Maggie are shown using the same voice and playing guessing games as different characters, as a way to bond with each other in various parts of the movie. It’s a family inside joke that obviously goes back to their childhoods, but “The Adults” doesn’t really go into details on when these siblings started using these cartoonish voices or playing these childlike games. After a while, it just becomes very dull to watch this gimmick over and over. There’s a scene where the three siblings dance together to Men at Work’s 1983 hit “Overkill,” a song title that is an apt description for how overly repetitive “The Adults” can be with these “look at these oddball siblings” scenes.

When Eric first arrived for his visit, he gave the impression that he only wanted to stay for a few days. But then, he finds one reason after another to keep extending his visit. The problem with this poorly written part of the plot is that viewers never really know what the stakes are for Eric to keep postponing his return to Portland. Viewers know that he’s a bachelor with no kids, but what kind of life does he have in Portland that he’s putting on hold to stay in New York? The movie never answers that question.

And therein lies much of the flimsy foundation of “The Adults,” which relentlessly pushes Eric to be the center of the siblings’ conflicts but never really shows who he is except being an egotistical jerk with very little self-awareness. It’s an over-used and tiresome cliché (especially in these types of independent dramedies) to elevate this type of repugnant character as being worthy of admiration or interest, when Eric is neither smart, funny, nor charismatic enough to justify what is essentially a movie about what he decides to do with his visit.

If this is the type of dull egomaniac you want to waste your time watching in a movie, then “The Adults” is for you. Lillis and Gross give better performances than Cera, but their characters of Maggie and Rachel still come across as kind of hollow. If you’d rather watch a movie with more substance, then there are much better options in the large number of films about estranged family members having an awkward and tension-filled reunion.

Variance Flms will release “The Adults” in select U.S. cinemas on August 18, 2023.

Review: ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,’ starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis and Hugh Grant

March 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith, Chris Pine, Regé-Jean Page, Sophia Lillis and Michelle Rodriguez plays in “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and eOne)

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

Culture Representation: Taking place in an alternate universe called the Forgotten Realms, where magic exists, the fantasy/action film “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, Latinos and African Americans) portraying humans, mutants and various creatures.

Culture Clash: After being betrayed by a former colleague who has taken over leadership of a city-state, three thieves team up with a druid and a paladin to defeat him and gain possession of a resurrection tablet. 

Culture Audience: “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Dungeons & Dragons games, the movie’s headliners, and thrilling fantasy films that serve generous helpings of comedy.

Daisy Head, Hugh Grant and Chloe Coleman (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and eOne)

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is a rollicking adventure packed with thrilling action scenes and appealing touches of comedy. You don’t have to know anything about Dungeons & Dragons games to enjoy this movie. It’s the type of film that will inspire repeat viewing and a loyal fan base in what will inevitably be a major movie franchise.

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Michael Gilio), “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” takes the complexity of the Dungeons & Dragons games and simplifies it with an easy-to-follow story with memorable characters. One of the movie’s distributors is eOne, which is owned by Hasbro, the company that makes the Dungeons & Dragons games.

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (which takes place an alternate universe called the Forgotten Realms) begins with a man named Edgin Darvis (played by Chris Pine) telling his story as a flashback. He used to be a member of the Harpers, a loosely knit group of spellcasters and spies who believe in equality and secretly oppose the abuse of power. The Red Wizards are among the most evil and powerful beings in the Forgotten Realms

Edgin’s wife Zia (played by Georgia Landers) was murdered by a Red Wizard durng one of his missions. After her death, Edgin raised their daughter Kira (played by Chloe Coleman), with the help of a bachelorette barbarian named Holga Kilgore (played by Michelle Rodriguez), whom he befriended. Edgin and Holga developed a brother-sister type of relationship, and Kira began to consider Holga to be like an aunt.

After his wife’s death, Edgin began a new life as a thief, working with a team that included Holga, a fumbling sorcerer named Simon Aumar (played by Justice Smith) and a con man named Forge Fitzwilliam (played by Hugh Grant). Edgin’s main goal in life is to find a resurrection tablet, which can grant the power to bring one person back from the dead before the tablet is rendered useless. Edgin wants to find the tablet to resurrect Zia.

One day, as shown in the movie, the four thieves break into former lair of the Harpers, but a Red Wizard named Sofina (played by Daisy Head) shows up and casts a spell that puts a time stop that makes Edgin and Holga unable to move. Simon and Forge escape. Before these two cohorts leave, Edgin asks Forge to look after Edgin’s daughter Kira. It’s a decision that Edgin will regret.

Edgin and Holga end up in prison for two years. They appear before a parole board to see if they will be pardoned. Before the board can make its decision, Edgin and Holga escape and go to try and find Kira. They discover that Forge has reinvented himself as the Lord of Neverwinter, and he has raised Kira to believe the lie that Edgin is a greedy thief who abandoned her because Edgin cares more about looking for treasures than being a father to Kira.

Edgin now must convince Kira that he is still a loving father who can raise her again, and he still wants to find the resurrection tablet. Holga and Edgin reunite with Simon, who recruits a tiefling druid named Doric (played by Sophia Lillis) to join them. Doric has shapeshifting powers and can transform herself to look like a variety of animals. Simon has an unrequited crush on Doric, who rejected his previous attempts to court her. Doric, who rarely smiles, doesn’t trust humans because humans have betrayed her in her past.

During the gang of four’s adventures, they meet a paladin named Xenk Yandar (played by Regé-Jean Page), who became an orphan as a boy when his family was slaughtered by Red Wizards invaded Xenk’s country. Xenk is highly intelligent, but wisecracking Edgin thinks that Xenk’s super-serious personality is annoying. This clash becomes a source of comedy in the movie.

“Dungeons and Dragons” Honor Among Thieves” has impressive visual effects and exciting action scenes that immerse viewers into this fantastical universe. There are many amusing parts of the story, such as corpses being interviewed at a graveyard. Grant as the roguish Forge gets many of the best comedic lines in the movie. Bradley Cooper also makes a cameo as Marlamin, a diminutive ex-boyfriend of Holga, who shows a vulnerable side to her tough and brave personality when she meets up with Marlamin. The principal cast members have great chemistry together, which hopefully won’t be lost when the inevitable “Dungeons & Dragons” movie sequels will be made.

Paramount Pictures and eOne will release “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” in U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘Gretel & Hansel,’ starring Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leakey and Alice Krige

January 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sophia Lillis in "Gretel & Hansel"
Sophia Lillis in “Gretel & Hansel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures)

“Gretel & Hansel”

Directed by Osgood “Oz” Perkins

Culture Representation: The predominantly white cast of characters live in a fictional fantasy world from the ancient past, mostly depicting the working class and poor members of that society.

Culture Clash: Two underage runaway siblings find themselves staying at the house of an evil witch, who doesn’t want them to leave.

Culture Audience: “Gretel & Hansel” will appeal mostly to horror fans or people who like to see movie adaptations of classic fairly tales, but this movie’s uninspiring and weak story will surely disappoint most viewers.

Alice Krige in “Gretel & Hansel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures)

Just like a witch’s spell that makes something rotten appear to be enticing, “Gretel & Hansel” is a horror movie that looks visually thrilling, but it’s really an ugly mess. The movie is a reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” (published in 1812 in Germany), but the movie’s ludicrous plot twists have very little resemblance to the original story. (The movie’s log line is “A Grim Fairy Tale,” a cheeky nod to the origin story.)

The core concept of “Hansel and Gretel” is still in the movie—a homeless young brother and sister try to survive by themselves in the woods when they are enticed into a house owned by a cannibalistic witch. But in this botched attempt to make “Gretel & Hansel” a dark feminist tale, director Osgood “Oz” Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes have put too much emphasis on style over substance, and they’ve sacrificed story development for gory scares that come too little, too late in the film. The hypnotic cinematography from Galo Olivares is the best thing about this dreadfully dull movie.

There are so many things wrong with “Gretel & Hansel” that the movie should be used as an example of what not to do in adapting a classic fairly tale into a movie. Sophia Lillis, who plays a teenage Gretel, is usually very talented—for now, she’s best known for being the token girl in the “It” movies—but she’s unfortunately miscast in this movie. Lillis definitely comes across as too modern for the role—and having a pixie haircut doesn’t make her a convincing Gretel—because she keeps her American accent and contemporary teenage mannerisms in a film that’s supposed to take place in a time long before the United States ever existed.

Meanwhile, Sammy Leakey who plays Greta’s brother Hansel (who’s about 7 to 9 years old) has a British accent, and the old, evil witch Holda (played by Alice Krige) has an accent that sounds like a mixture of Irish and Krige’s native South African. This hodgepodge of international accents is very distracting and ultimately a detriment to this movie that’s supposed to convey a very insular world.

It’s not as if all the characters should have had a German accent or even the same accent for the entire cast. It’s just lazy filmmaking for the movie’s two siblings, who grew up together, to have accents from two different countries. Lillis seems like a good-enough actress to at least try to have a British accent to match the Hansel character in the movie. As for Leakey’s acting skills, let’s just say that “Gretel & Hansel” was a very lucky break for him indeed.

“Gretel & Hansel” does not have a kindly father, who plays a crucial role in the original fairy tale. Instead, the siblings’ uncaring mother (whose has a British accent) is single and impoverished, and willing to prostitute Gretel out to a sleazy old man, who pretends to want to hire Gretel as a maid. After he makes it clear what his intentions are when he asks Gretel if she’s still “intact” (in other words, if she’s still a virgin), Gretel runs away and tells her mother, who scolds her for not doing what the man wanted for money. (That sexual-harassment subplot is definitely not in the original fairy tale.) Her mother resents Gretel for taking up space and threatens to send her to a convent. Gretel refuses to go because it would mean that she would be separated from Hansel.

Gretel then decides to runs away with Hansel, and they end up sleeping in what they think is an empty castle. But the castle owner (another creepy old man) shocks them out of their sleep and chases after them with murderous intent. He’s killed by a mystical character called The Hunter (played by Charles Babalola), a bow-and-arrow-slinging nomad, who kindly takes in Gretel and Hansel by giving them food and a temporary place to stay.

Gretel has been taught by her mother that people who show generosity will expect something in return, so Gretel is surprised when The Hunter doesn’t expect the siblings to repay his kindness. Instead, he advises Gretel and Hansel to offer their work services to the townspeople. He suggests that Hansel become a forester by developing tree-chopping skills, and Gretel could do traditional women’s work of harvesting and preparing food. The movie wants us to believe that Gretel is a smart and empowered feminist in the making (her interactions with Hansel are basically her telling him what to do and him questioning her), but her later actions in the story make you question her intelligence and leadership skills.

There are also a few quirks in “Gretel & Hansel” that don’t really fit with the foreboding atmosphere that is supposed to be portrayed. One of these quirks is the oddball way that characters in the movie make pig-snorting sounds as a sign of affection. Hansel and Gretel do this with each other, and then later the witch Holda does it too, as a way of trying to bond with the kids. It’s a weird component to the film that seems like a misguided attempt at humor.

Another thing that takes you out of the movie is when Holda drops a glass, which breaks on the floor, and she somewhat chuckles and utters something like, “Oh, well. Another one bites the dust.” Although the rock band Queen might be amused that this ancient witch namechecked a phrase their hit song made famous in pop culture, it’s an example of how awkward the writing is for this movie.

Another out-of-left-field moment happens when, after Gretel and Hansel leave The Hunter and before they see the witch’s house, the two siblings are wandering around while starving in the woods, and they eat mushrooms that turn out to be psychedelic. For about five minutes of the movie, people have to sit through a scene of two children having a drug trip. It’s played for laughs, and it’s an unnecessary scene that throws the apprehensive tone of the film a little off-balance.

Before they get to the witch’s house, Gretel sees some shadowy figures that look like witches in the distance. And a flashback backstory is shown about a girl from the past who was demonized by the townspeople for her magical powers, which include killing a cow just by staring at it. By the time Hansel and Gretel get to the witch’s house, you want some real horror to happen. Just like in the original fairy tale, a starving Hansel and Gretel go into the house when they see a lavish meal prepared on the table.

The witch who lives there startles them and keeps them there by offering them a place to stay and sumptuous meals every day. Gretel is automatically suspicious because she doesn’t see how the food is prepared and where it’s coming from—there’s plenty of meat and milk, but no cows or other animals on the property—but she stays because the food is too tempting and she doesn’t know where else to go. Meanwhile, Gretel keeps having visions of being in a room with a young witch (who looks less like an ancient witch and more like a Goth who just came from a Marilyn Manson concert) in a room where there’s a bloody tablecloth—and you can guess what’s underneath.

But “Gretel & Hansel” commits the worst sin of all for a horror movie: There are long stretches where nothing much happens except the protagonists (in this case, Hansel and Gretel) looking anxious or confused. Gretel has nightmares that are made to look like the events are happening in real time, but then you find out it was only a dream when she’s startled out of her sleep. This gimmick might be acceptable one time in a movie, but when it keeps happening in this type of horror flick, viewers’ patience will start to wear thin.

As the evil witch Holda, actress Krige oozes hellish decay and malevolence, even when Holda tries to appear maternal and protective. And truth be told, Holda is the one who has the most personality in the whole movie. Unfortunately, Gretel in this film is written as a monotonous shell of a person who thinks she’s smart, but she keeps making dumb decisions. (Hansel can’t be blamed for much because he’s too young to know better.)

The cinematography and production design for the movie are interesting, in that the witch’s house isn’t a complete stereotype of being musty and filled with spiderwebs. Most of the house’s interior is dark, but clean and bathed in a dark golden glow. There’s also a room that is entirely in white, to contrast with some very disturbing and bloody things that happen in that room. And Holda’s and other witches’ fingertips look like they were dipped in black paint, which is an aesthetic that isn’t really seen in movies with witch characters.

But all of those eye-catching motifs don’t mean much when the story and characters are nonsensical and tedious. For example, Gretel finds out at some point in the story that she has a specific power, which she doesn’t use until it’s almost too late. There’s no point in trying to make sense of this movie, because it doesn’t have a story or character worth caring about or remembering long after you’ve seen it.

Orion Pictures will release “Gretel & Hansel” in U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.

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