Movie Review ~ Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An imaginary world comes to life in a holiday tale of an eccentric toymaker, his adventurous granddaughter, and a magical invention that has the power to change their lives forever.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Ricky Martin, Kieron Dyer, Justin Cornwell, Lisa Davina Phillip, Hugh Bonneville, Sharon Rose

Director: David E. Talbert

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Just because we’re getting close to the holiday season, I’m going to give you a little insider information about how screenings sometimes come our way.  Critics are often able to take a look at upcoming titles and afforded the opportunity to explore them further to see if they’re something that might appeal to their readers or make for good coverage.  As I was browsing the November releases, I passed over Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey without giving it much of a sideways glance and, stupidly on my part, this was mainly because of the title.  Having recently made it through all of 45 seconds of Hubie Halloween before waving the white flag, I somehow got it in my mind this was something similar.  Then, by chance, I happened to see a small clip in an ad before a random internet video and knew I had to correct my error and fast.

Terms like “instant classic” get tossed around pretty easily but they rarely apply, however I’m going to go out on a snow-covered limb here and bestow said title on Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey but insert ‘holiday’ in there for extra clarity.  We all have our favorite films to watch as the year winds down and celebrations begin for whatever holiday we observe, and my Christmas movie list is a dense one – impossible to get through in a single year.  No matter, it didn’t take long into writer/director David E. Talbert’s extravagant original musical premiering on Netflix to realize that this was a bona fide winner and one that would endure in my household for years to come.

Like the best Christmas stories, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey begins on Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire with a Grandmother (Phylicia Rashad, Creed) telling her two grandchildren a different kind of yuletide tale than they are used to.  Cracking open a book that is literally a well-oiled machine, she introduces Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell, Chi-Raq) a brilliant inventor who lives with his wife and young daughter in a small town where his toy shop is the delight of all that enter.  His young apprentice, Gustafson, wants to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, as does his inquisitive daughter.  With his latest creation, a sleek toy bullfighter named Don Juan Diego that has been given autonomy to move about on its own, Jeronicus is poised to never have another worry for his family once he can mass produce the Don Juan doll.

However, with his independence comes a desire to be a singular creation so Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Gustafson to rob Jeronicus of his sketches and ideas in exchange for success on his own.  This sets the appreciate on a path to greatness while the mentor’s life takes a tumble.  Flash forward several decades and Jeronicus (now played for Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace) is alone, having been forced out of the toy business and estranged from his adult daughter (Anika Noni Rose, Body Cam).  The arrival of his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills), who also shows a keen knack for invention and mathematics, coincides with the bank threating to foreclose on his home/shop just as Christmas draws near.  As the spirited Journey draws her recluse grandfather out of his shell and discovers an unfinished invention that could save his business, the now-famous but creatively challenged Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) gets wind of another project that could be his if he plays his cards right.

As you can probably tell, the plot for the film is not that far from your typical holiday fare with talk of bankers seizing property if bills aren’t paid by Christmas Eve and villains that are bad but only in so far as to twist their moustaches really furiously when they don’t get their way.  Talbert has stayed well within the bounds of the PG rating and hasn’t, like a number of family films as of late, pushed against its boundaries to see how scary he could get away with it being.  This is a fine film for the entire family to watch, young and old, and its entertaining as all get out.  It’s basically a storybook come to life where the stakes aren’t incredibly high but the feelings tied to them are.  Ordinarily, a familiar-feeling plot such as this would get old fast but it’s that pleasant coziness that makes these holiday films such easy to devour treats.

Talbert has already struck a nice mood out of the gate with Rashad’s serene setting of the stage and our colorful introduction to the world of Jeronicus Jangle, brought to life with a mixture of gorgeous CGI and brilliantly designed stop-motion sequences to compliment the bountiful production values.  I’m not sure how much money it cost to make the film but it looks stunning, from the handsome set design to the richly detailed costumes layered with the kind of eye-catching colors and textures so appealing you can almost get a sense for what they feel like.  So before much of anything happens in the film, you’re already kind of struck by what you’re seeing.  Then the music starts.

I guess I knew Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey was a musical but by the time the first song hits it comes on like a locomotive and is a full-out, full-cast introduction to the Jangle toy shop.  There’s plenty more where that came from with John Legend, Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, and Michael Diskint contributing songs along the way.  Not all of them are going to be ear worms but they’re all sung well by the film’s cast and there’s not an outright stinker in the bunch (a song or a voice).  Thankfully, Talbert doesn’t cram a song in every five minutes, letting them develop naturally out of his story…which he originally intended as a stage musical.  With a few tweaks and adjustments here and there, I can imagine this making the transition to the stage rather easily.

The cast is uniformly great across the board as well, with dependable stalwarts like Rashad and Rose knowing exactly the emotions to mine and just the amount of pressure to put on your tear ducts to get them going.  Rose, in particular, had a dynamite run of 15 minutes or so where she rips the roof off of a John Legend song and then gets to show off her acting range in a great scene.  I’m not usually a fan of Key (sorry, not sorry) but have to admit his singing voice was solid and his presence in his musical numbers was pretty thrilling.  Martin has the toughest role because it’s the one that’s the least interesting – no one cares about the villain in these tales and by the middle of the film you’ll likely forget there’s even this B storyline still in play.

You’ll want to keep your eye on three key performances.  As a love weary postmistress who pines for Jeronicus, Lisa Davina Phillip is a riot as she tries to catch his eye.  It’s a campy, over-the-top performance that’s far afield from any other in the film but she makes it work thanks to her winning sincerity (though I was surprised to see her singing voice was dubbed by stage actress Marisha Wallace).  I was totally knocked over by Whitaker, too.  In my experience, the Oscar winner can often come across flat and unlikable but watching his heart get unfrozen by his young granddaughter will truly bring a tear to your eye.  Then there’s Mills in a star-making turn as a young girl finding where she fits in by daring to dream big.  An excellent role model for girls and boys, BIPOC or other, Journey is a next generation kind of child heroine – celebrations all around.  With all the singing and dancing she has to do, it would have been entirely easy for this to have been cast with a “child performer” but Talbert has found that rarity…a star.

With the emphasis on family, the focus on celebrating goodness, and recognizing the power of forgiveness, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has its prime moments when its poised to attack your emotions.  I’m an especially easy target but if I do cry, I’m typically a one eye tear kinda guy…this was a two eye cry, though, so make sure to have a hankie ready.  You’re apt to shed a tear not because the film is sad but because after a 2020 that has had more than its share of downs, it’s wonderful to get right to the end and be gifted a film that leaves you with a lot of “ups”.  Do yourself a favor a gather around the Netflix queue with your friends, family, or fly solo for Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey this Christmas, it’s a present that I think will keep on giving long after the holidays are over.

Movie Review ~ Hillbilly Elegy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Yale law student drawn back to his hometown grapples with family history, Appalachian values and the American dream.

Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There’s a strange feeling that overtakes you when you realize you’re watching a bad movie.  Not a bad movie like most of us would think of it.  You know, like, the cheap-o films with bargain basement production values and actors that can barely convince you they’re from this planet.  No, there is another kind of bad movie and it’s the deadliest of them all…the prestige picture that goes south right under the otherwise hyper-sensitive noses of everyone involved.  Maybe they all knew it was imploding and couldn’t get out of the wreckage or maybe, apparently like everyone involved in the 2019 big-screen version of the Broadway musical CATS, they didn’t realize it until the release date was pending.

I’d heard the tiniest sliver of buzz around Hillbilly Elegy as it was getting ready to roll out, mostly due to the involvement of two long-overdue Oscar never-winners in supposedly meaty parts.  This adaptation of J.D. Vance’s popular, but controversial, 2016 memoir of his life growing up in Ohio had a load of baggage attached to it, not the least of which was its partisan political issues that festered at its core.  Would the film be able to rise above these red state/blue state dividers especially during an election year where half the country supported a leader that’s morally and ethically bankrupt and still be able to maintain the heart of what Vance had to say about a poverty-laced upbringing that eventually led him to a criticized choice regarding his own survival?

Honestly?  I don’t know what to report back to you on what screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) has found at the center of Vance’s story because Hillbilly Elegy is a mess on a number of levels that it’s difficult to know what to target first.  It’s an old-fashioned, paint-by-numbers take on a timeless story of rising above one’s own circumstance given no nuance by Taylor, nor provided any assistance from director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who is absolutely the wrong director for this type of tale.   Through a series of scenes that hop between J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos, with a face always in a perpetual state of surprise) and as a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso, who actually looks like an older version of Asztalos) Taylor and Howard walk us through Vance’s often harrowing account of life with his drug-addicted mother (Amy Adams, Vice) and tough-love grandmother (Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs).

I could go on about the vignettes that take up the lion’s share of Hillbilly Elegy but they are executed so haphazardly and with maximum focus on the extreme edges of the actors performance that they start to resemble cartoons as the movie progresses.  The opening scene, at the good-byes of a large family reunion in Appalachia, sparked some interest for me but once we get back to the city living of JD it goes right into one turbulent event after another.  Running down a checklist of required scenes in these types of films like the middle of the street ruckus that all the neighbors come to gawk at, the uncomfortable moment where some city folk get educated on not looking down on “hill people”, clothes being thrown over balconies onto yellowed lawns…they’re all here.  Yet even with all that, you’d be hard pressed to remember any characteristic of these people other than their bad traits…even their names fade from memory.  In fact, it would be a miracle if you could name any of the supporting characters by the time the film concludes.

Two people you will remember from the movie are Adams and Close but not necessarily for the reasons they’d want you to.  Nominated for the Oscar six times now, Adams can’t quite find that role that’s going to get her across the finish line and I fear we’re getting into that arena where it’s not happening or if it does happen it will be a cumulative reward instead of it being deserving for the actual role she’s nominated for.  There’s no chance of that happening here, though.  While I like Adams for the most part, she grabs for too much and comes back with fistfuls of air, at times to our own wincing embarrassment.  It’s a strange swing and a miss for Adams and I wonder if the role would have been better suited for an actress less well known without all of that awards-hopeful dreams attached to it.

Strangely, though you’d think her part would be the more problematic what with the wig, glasses, mottled skin, and endless supply of 6XLT t-shirts and carpenter jeans she wears, Close gets better the more we get used to her.  She also does what every true A-list star does best…make everyone else look as good or better in shared scenes while still performing the ever-loving heck out of her own part.  Close may get poked fun at for her seven Oscar losses but she stands the best chance out of anyone to get a nomination and might just deserve it.  The performance is Close through and through, played straight to the back of the theater and making you feel like you’re the only one in the room with her. (Side note, I saw Close recreate her Tony-winning role in Sunset Boulevard a few seasons back and can confirm this phenomenon is true.  I was in the balcony but often felt like I was sitting next to her…she’s that good at bringing you in).  Close wants that Oscar so bad she’s practically gnawing on it and while I’d much rather see her get it for the long in the works movie of Sunset Boulevard, I wouldn’t cry my eyes out if this is the one that sealed the deal.

I wish that the two JDs were as strong as their alpha females.  Basso is a bit of a black hole when it comes to being a scene partner, he’s not bad but merely serviceable and this should be a star-making role.  Six or seven years ago this would have been Chris Pratt’s role and he might have had a better take on this character.  Credit to Asztalos for having several rough scenes to get through but, again, there’s no nuance to anything he’s doing.  The dial seems to have three settings (all breathing through the mouth) and nothing much more than that goes on in his performance.  For what little she has, Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) gets a few good moments but disappears for long stretches where we wind up forgetting to miss her.  Speaking of disappearing, as JD’s law-student girlfriend poor Freida Pinto (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wins the Laura Linney in Sully Supporting Partner Who Just Talks On The Phone award because all she seems to be there for is to chat with JD and offer words of encouragement from miles away.

Arriving just as a bitter election cycle has ended (or has it?), the timing for further discourse on the merits of Hillbilly Elegy seems wrong.  I’m not sure Taylor or Howard even registered there were deeper issues to discuss that bubbled below the simple story of JD pulling himself away from a family troubled by drug use and not being able to make ends meet.  It’s there, though, and I can see why the book became a bit of a lightning rod for those that live in that area Vance high-tailed it away from.  Surprisingly, Howard has been making some good documentaries lately like this year’s Rebuilding Paradise. That film about the California wildfires focused on how communities work together to solve problems.  Funny, then, that in directing Hillbilly Elegy he seems to take no interest in another community also working on solving issues from within.

Movie Review ~ The Life Ahead


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In seaside Italy, a Holocaust survivor with a daycare business takes in a street kid who recently robbed her. The two loners become each other’s protectors, anchoring an unconventional family.

Stars: Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, Babak Karimi

Director: Edoardo Ponti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’ve talked about cinematic blind spots here before and how I admit to having a few glaring ones that I wear with some shame.  I’m still working on filling in my gaps of knowledge for my Akira Kurosawa and Charlie Chaplin histories but often times another will spring up, unannounced.  Well, I’ve discovered a new one that I have to discuss with you and I just realized it while watching legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren’s return to film after a 10-year absence in The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé), premiering on Netflix.  I didn’t think it was as bad as it was but after looking over her filmography, I am seriously delinquent in my Loren filmography.  I don’t think I’ve even seen her landmark Oscar-winning performance in Two Women (La ciociara) which made her the first foreign actor to win an Academy Award.

So, while I work on adding titles from the Loren library to my queue it’s worth noting what a life this actress has had.  Over a career that is now entering it’s seventh (seventh) decade, Loren had worked regularly up until a decade ago when she decided to take a break to focus on her family.  Married for 50 years to Italian film producer Carlo Ponti until his death in 2007, she’s returning now in a movie directed by her son in their third pairing as director/star.  Adapted from Romain Gary’s 1975 novel The Life Before Us, interestingly enough the book was already made into an Oscar winning foreign film before, 1978’s Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret who some might claim as the French equivalent of Sophia Loren.  It’s a feast of a role and any actress worth their salt would make a banquet out of it.  Moved from the original setting of France to modern day Italy, Ponti’s The Life Ahead has brought his mother back to the screen with the same fire and passion that has made her one of cinema’s greatest treasures.

Ponti and his co-adapter, playwright Ugo Chiti, begin the film at the end (maybe) and then flashback six months prior to show how we got there.  A Senegalese orphan named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) spots Madame Rosa (Loren) at the open air market, a pair of expensive-looking candlesticks lazily hanging out of her shopping bag.  He steals the bag, knocking her down in the process and, unable to pawn them off for cash to the local drug dealer, he stashes them with his things which is where Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) finds them.  Knowing Madame Rosa as a patient, Coen brings Momo to return the stolen items…a meeting that doesn’t go well for either party.  Still, sensing an opportunity that has presented itself, Coen wonders if Madame Rosa would mind taking Momo in for a short time while Coen finds a better place for the boy to live.  Though she’s already watching over two children that have been left in her care, Madame Rose is tempted by Coen’s monetary offer and finds room for the child that doesn’t trust anyone and is sadly used to be shuffled around.

It’s not going to be hard for you to guess how this all turns out but The Life Ahead is less about the overall predictability of the friendship and deep connection that forms between Momo and Madame Rosa and more about the small moments along the way.  We get the sense that it’s been a while since anyone has cared about Momo and though Madame Rosa is brusque and has rules, tough love is still love and he needs everything she has to offer.  She, too, needs the kind of watchful and unflinching eye someone that is used to the horrors of life can take on.  A Holocaust survivor that became a career prostitute after the war, Madame Rosa has serious effects of PTSD that no one who hasn’t witnessed death firsthand could understand.  Though her past career might be seen as a black mark by some, Madame Rosa is actually a respected member of her tiny neighborhood and she uses her connections to get Momo a job with a kindly local shopkeeper, though he’s already begun selling drugs on the sly and gotten quite good at it.

What The Life Ahead does so well, especially in its modern setting, is portray a new kind of “family” in normal terms without it ever being about the difference that exist between them.  In addition to the unlikely pair, there’s a transgender neighbor (the excellent Abril Zamora) and the topic of her gender is only briefly touched upon – and it’s never an issue or pivot point for any action of great importance to the story being told.  That’s the thing about foreign sensibilities toward sexuality and class, it doesn’t interest them half as much as basic human interaction and getting under the surface to see what motivates emotion.  Everyone is treated as a person first and foremost and that gives them all an equality which rings completely true.  The only lack of development Ponti and Chiti could be faulted for are a handful of side characters, like the chief drug dealer who is portrayed as a kind of Fagin to Momo’s Oliver and the relationship is so ill-defined that it never totally worked for me.

What does work in every way is Loren’s glowing performance and Gueye as her incredible costar.  Even after all these years, Loren knows how to create the fine details of a character that tells you deeper truths that go beyond the surface.  This type of work needs no translation to come across loud and clear.  I’d go so far as to say that Gueye steals the movie from Loren, though.  What a stunning find, so honest in every scene and so natural in his instincts.  Watch a sequence where Momo joins his kingpin on the dancefloor and becomes the center of attention, you can see him come alive with confidence right before your eyes and the effect is truly magical.

All the being said, there’s something overly conventional about The Life Ahead that’s hard to shake away.  The plot feels familiar because the set-up has been done numerous times before, even if the ending is a certifiable tearjerker.  It all ends with a Diane Warren (The Hunting Ground) song that will likely be the songwriter’s 12th nomination but I’m not so sure this is going to be the one to get her over the finish line.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Io Si (Seen)’ is another typically lush Warren soaring tune but is it as impactful as some of her other entries?  Tough call.  One thins is certain, Loren is back in the game in a big way and might find herself an Oscar nominee at age 86.  It may not be the most original and quintessential star-vehicle but you get two for the price of one in The Life Ahead thanks to Loren and Gueye’s unforgettable work.

Movie Review ~ Kindred


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Plagued by mysterious hallucinations, a pregnant woman suspects that the family of her deceased boyfriend has intentions for her unborn child.

Stars: Tamara Lawrance, Fiona Show, Jack Lowden, Anton Lesser, Edward Holcroft, Chloe Pirrie

Director: Joe Marcantonio

Rated: NR

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The best ways that horror can get at us is at the places we are the most vulnerable.  That’s why Psycho made showers so terrifying – you’re totally exposed and defenseless with just a thin sheet of plastic between you and a steamy room of shadows.  Your mind will play tricks on you if you are in the wrong head space.  Same thing goes for JAWS.  There’s a reason why beaches were suddenly a little quieter the summer of 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s big shark film snacked on swimmers and munched away at the box office.  If you’re out in the middle of the ocean, unable to get away from an unseen danger that lurks below…what can you do?  Stick with a pool, is my advice.  Even then…remember the 1980 movie Alligator?  On second thought, stick to bathtubs.  Wait, we’re back to Psycho again.

All this to say, a vulnerable state is a bad place to be if you’re in a horror film and that’s where Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance, On Chesil Beach) finds herself not too long after the start of Kindred, a new streaming film from the always dependable studio IFC Midnight (make sure to check out their other 2020 releases like Sputnik, The Wretched, Relic, and Centigrade).  Similar to Rosemary’s Baby, this revolves around a pregnant woman that starts to have visions of danger and suffers from paranoia dismissed by those she trusts as her due date approaches.  Unlike that classic Roman Polanski supernatural film (adapted from the bestselling Ira Levin book) however, there’s no apartment building with devil worshipping residents to wander around in, just a chilly English mansion that’s in need of a good restoration with two rather intense hosts never out of earshot.

Growing up with a mother that suffered terrible postpartum depression that spilled over into other mental health issues, Charlotte knew she never wanted to be a mother herself.  So when she finds out from the village doctor she’s pregnant just as she and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft, Vampire Academy) announced to his mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw, Enola Holmes) and stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden, Mary, Queen of Scots) they were moving to Australia, she knows the timing is bad.  Things go from bad to worse when Ben is tragically killed in a freak accident and she winds up homeless and living with Margaret in the family estate, isolated from the outside world.

At first, Charlotte begrudgingly accepts Margaret’s hospitality.  Though the two women never saw eye to eye (and a hospital quarrel after Ben’s death rose to a shocking climax), they’ve agreed to let bygones be bygones for the sake of the baby.  Suffering from dizzy spells and health issues that can’t be fully diagnosed, Charlotte will stay with Margaret and Thomas until she’s well enough to begin her new life outside of the insular cottage-town she shared with her late lover.  Meanwhile, Margaret appears to have taken a decidedly keen interest in the welfare of Charlotte’s baby (naturally, it’s her only grandchild) and soon Charlotte realizes that she’s become a de facto prisoner of her almost mother-in-law and her strangely enigmatic stepson.  If Charlotte had politely tolerated Margaret before, she’d barely taken the time to glance at Thomas but now she’s forced into getting to know him as a way to protect herself from Margaret and, eventually, him.

Writer/director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason McColgan have given Kindred the gentlest of burns and the boil is slow to bubble.  When the heat does eventually rise, it has its spooky moments and that it derives its suspense from realism instead of mysticism helps the film hold together better in some of its shakier stretches.  I had a hard time believing the strong-willed Charlotte would have let these shenanigans go on for as long as she does but there’s a politeness she’s trying to master, especially after her earlier run-in with Margaret, that I could eventually go with it.  Things start to careen wildly near the end, unfortunately, and while I’m not giving any spoilers away I will say that I’m not so sure the writers came up with the most efficient way to end the film.  I’m betting there’s one or two alternate endings that show up on an eventual home release of the movie.

What keeps the movie ever watchable are the trio of performances with all three actors holding their cards so close to their chest they might as well have them sewn to their undershirts.  I thought Lawrance was a dynamic lead, an inspired choice maybe because it looks like early on she could escape at any point but by the time she does realize she’s trapped she’s in no physical condition to get away.  You’re invested in the character even before she gets ensconced in the mansion and that’s saying something.  Also serving as producer, Lowden takes what could have been purely creepy character and given him a dangerous allure that encourages you to let your guard down.  Both Lowden and Shaw are at the center of the film’s two best moments, largely uninterrupted monologues that reveal certain character business about each…excellent stuff.  Pay special attention to Shaw’s lengthy monologue about her son and a dog, it’s always fascinating to watch Shaw build a character and here you get to see her do it right in front of you with the tiniest of brilliant brush strokes.

Without many of the “loud” elements that give films similar to Kindred more jolts, I can imagine how the film might come off as a little staid for some.  I watched this one late at night and was impressed at how well it kept my attention even well into the midnight hour.  It’s measured in its energy, to be sure, and it gets increasingly standard the longer it goes, disappointingly so considering how good the first 50 minutes or are.  However, those three lead performances coupled with a plot grounded in some type of reality that makes what happens all the more unsettling help to make Kindred worth the labor pains you may feel at times getting through the more familiar-feeling passages.