Movie Review ~ 8-Bit Christmas

The Facts:

Synopsis: In suburban Chicago during the late 1980s, ten-year-old Jake Doyle embarks on a herculean quest to get the latest and greatest video game system for Christmas.

Stars: Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, June Diane Raphael, Steve Zahn, Bellaluna Resnick, Sophia Reid-Gantzert, Che Tafari, Santino Barnard, Max Malas, Brielle Rankins, Braelyn Rankins, Cyrus Arnold, Jacob Laval, Chandler Dean

Director: Michael Dowse

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  The golden goose for any Christmas related film is to obtain classic status; to make it into a yearly rotation in someone’s watchlist or be that particular title to which the season “can’t really start” until it has been seen.  Only a select few can be in that top tier (think It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and A Christmas Story) but there are increasingly a nice batch of below the line selections making up a variety grab bag which can also signal the season is upon us.  Elf, The Holiday, Love, Actually, Home Alone, The Best Man Holiday, Krampus, and Scrooged are movies that may not be on every Christmas wish list but are popular enough to serve as primer or follow-up to the feature presentation of the genuine classics.

Each year more contenders attempt to add their name as another option and while there’s no chance for some (hello Fred Claus!), others fare better (Klaus, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey).  2021 is no different and while we can very politely disqualify the Hallmark/Lifetime options for their machine-like churn of creation, I think Thanksgiving brought a solid selection not just for audiences this season but for many to come.  Checking a number of Christmas movie boxes with ease and possessing a nostalgic charm that works with its unabashed warm sincerity, 8-Bit Christmas fills the viewers cup right to the brim and then adds in an unexpected emotional punch which sends it overflowing with holiday spirit.

As they wait in his suburban Chicago childhood home for the rest of the family to arrive for Christmas dinner, Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris, Gone Girl) needs to find a way to keep his young daughter distracted so he fires up his old Nintendo Entertainment System.  His daughter thinks it looks like Tupperware and isn’t sure what it is meant to do.  Shaking off that sting, he sits her down and, after properly cleaning the game cartridge by blowing on it (why?  “Because it just works.”), shows her how to play Paperboy while telling her the story of the Christmas he and his friends conspired to get a Nintendo of their own.

It’s 1988 and young Jake (Winslow Fegley, Come Play) is a typical youngster suffering through adolescence in grade school along with a group of close friends, all with their own identifiable (and movie ready) personalities.  There’s a set of twins who have to share everything, down to their birthdays being almost on Christmas.  One bud constantly quotes (G-rated) lines from the R-rated movies he’s allowed to see and another is a pathological liar who most recently claimed to have been Tom Cruise’s stunt double.  Everyone is united on one thing though, they all are obsessed with the recently released Nintendo and after the one system available to them from an ultra-elite classmate gets taken away, they have to come up with their own plan to gather their money and purchase one during a field trip into the city.

Standing in their way are PTA members who think video games rot the brains of impressionable youth, a massive class bully (Cyrus Arnold, Zoolander 2) who looks to have been held back about seven grades, and Jake’s parents (June Diane Raphael, The High Note, and Steve Zahn, Uncle Frank) neither of which seem to be keen on the idea of Jake getting the Nintendo. If he can’t pick up the dog poop in their yard (“the backyard looked like a vanilla cake that had chocolate chips dumped in it”…yuck) why should he be rewarded with something that will keep him further disinterested in doing his chores?  Over time, screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski (who wrote the book the movie is based on) shows that perhaps the dad’s motivations are more about an unspoken desire for more connection with his son but that isn’t as fully developed as it could be…though it does circle back nicely near the end.

Dotted throughout with wonderful references to the era without turning it into this caustic time capsule that make the ‘80s feel like some alien planet, director Michael Dowse (What If) and the production designer have an obvious affinity for the material and the decade the story takes place.  There are great references which are easy to find while some you have to work to pick up and these Easter Eggs are where the fun of a future re-watch will enter in. 

I couldn’t help, as many I’m sure will, but be reminded of A Christmas Story when watching this because the parallels between the two films are clear.  Boy wants a popular toy for Christmas that his parents don’t want him to have so he goes to great lengths and madcap adventures to obtain it.  I don’t quite connect to that earlier film, often because it turns to a nostalgia for a time that I don’t have a pull toward while the moments we revisit in 8-Bit Christmas are strikingly familiar to me.  So often during the film I could picture myself right there along with Jake and his friends being a part of their caper – so perhaps this film is to me what A Christmas Story was to my parents.

The film flows so nicely and lightly that a rather emotional ending hit me harder than I ever expected it would – and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s a credit to the performances and screenplay that whatever feelings we feel are real and not cheaply wrung as a ploy to send us back to our family gatherings with red eyes.  It may not be for the very young kids in a family but the big kids and adults that used to be the big kids will love 8-Bit Christmas for the comedy (even with some gross humor that I admit I laughed heartily at) and want to return to it again.  It may not be an annual event but as one to return to every few years as a way of reminding you the ‘80s were fairly rad?  Totally.

Movie Review ~ Boiling Point (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Enter the relentless pressure of a restaurant kitchen as a head chef wrangles his team on the busiest day of the year.

Stars: Stephen Graham, Vinette Robinson, Alice May Feetham, Hannah Walters, Malachi Kirby, Izuka Hoyle, Taz Skylar, Lauryn Ajufo, Jason Flemyng, Ray Panthaki, Daniel Larkai, Lourdes Faberes

Director: Philip Barantini

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  There are few things on the technical side of movies that get me as excited as one-shot filmmaking because of all the risks that go along with it.  One screw-up by a background actor, one flubbed line by the star going from one location to another, a missing prop, a malfunctioning door…any of these could ruin a take resulting in the entire machine needing to start up again.  Unless it’s a live event, movies can work some magic and seamlessly cut together one take to the next and though several high-profile films have claimed to have been presented in a single take (1917 springs to mind), further investigation shows that isn’t the case.

So an experience like Boiling Point should be a cause to celebrate because it actually is one of those rare instances of a company of actors and crackerjack film crew collaborating on getting through a 90 minute take without any interruption.  While it began life as a 22-minute short film starring many of the same actors, the ante is upped significantly by expanding upon the original short that sets the film in a tightly packed restaurant already fraught with the tension of a busy night during a critical turning point for many of its staff and leadership.  Director Philip Barantini and co-writer James Cummings have etched a rough sketch for the talented cast to operate within and then set them free for four single takes over two evenings in a trendy London restaurant.  Oddly, though there is an earnest aroma of drama that wafts over the hour and a half of real time events, the overall dish has a bland taste where spice was all but promised.

The dinner service at Jones and Sons (a real restaurant in London) hasn’t even started yet and already head chef Andy Jones (Stephen Graham, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) is having a bad night.  Arguing with his ex on the phone as he steps into his kitchen, he’s greeted by a health and safety inspector who informs him the restaurant rating is being reduced by two points due to recent violations.  Issues with front of house manager Beth (Alice Feetham) cause a disconnect between the wait staff and sous chef Carly (Vinette Robinson, Frankie), resulting in an epic blow-up that has a ripple effect through the employees that support one or the other.   Andy also has to make space in his busy night to placate Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng, Military Wives), a celebrity chef/friend/investor making an unplanned visit to dine along with his guest, a high-profile food critic (Lourdes Faberes, No Time to Die).  This is all in addition to a variety of customers with their own quirks that irk.

All of the crisscrossing storylines that Cummings and Barantini (Villain) have, ahem, cooked up are interesting in the moment but lack the hook to keep you thinking about them after they are out of sight.  The pace is so rapid there’s barely a moment to breathe, let alone get to know the multitude of players that zoom out of our line of sight.  One of the drawbacks of keeping the camera going is that it often trails people doing absolutely nothing just to have something to film.  In a normal movie, the editor would cut from a shot of an actor exiting down a hallway to them entering another room.  In Boiling Point, we just flutter behind like a gnat, without much purpose.  In one shot, we’re following an actor as they go from one end of the restaurant all the way to the other end and then outside, only to turn around and retrace their steps and back out again because they forgot a jacket.  All of that is likely in service of setting up the actors for the next scene but you’d think the writers would have found some intention to these silent walks. 

More than anything, most of the characters are so unlikable that you almost recoil from the screen after a while. Early on in Boiling Point, the cast is just yelling profanities at one another and while that may be an accurate representation of what it’s like during intense moments in restaurant setting like this (hey, I’ve watched Hell’s Kitchen too!), it wastes precious time where characters could be developed instead.  Everyone seems to be in it for themselves and even seemingly kind server Andrea (Lauryn Ajufo) eventually shows how quickly she can develop a deflective skin for a nasty customer.  In the leading role, Graham often comes up weirdly whiny and definitely not the hero of the piece.  Working through his own problems while holding his business up is breaking him down and tonight may be the final straw…but can he make it through this final service before cleaning up his act?

No spoilers, but the ending to the film was a bit of stupefying lame-ness and a cheap way to go out.  Up until then Boiling Point was just overshooting its goal by trying to do too much so I was so surprised when it decided to nosedive as quickly as it did.  That anyone thought this was a worthy ending for the characters or even something meaningful is totally crazy.  I was leaning toward recommending this movie based on the acumen it showed in carrying off its big achievement stunt, but the finale put me squarely on the fence.  Ultimately, I still think it’s worth seeing for some elements but not for that ending.  Put that ending on ice…or fry it off.  Whatever cooking allegory you want to use.

Movie Review ~ Bruised

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A disgraced MMA fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Adan Canto, Adriane Lenox, Sheila Atim, Danny Boyd Jr., Shamier Anderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denny Dillon, Valentina Shevchenko, Lela Loren, Nikolai Nikolaeff

Director: Halle Berry

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There are few actors working in Hollywood today that I find myself actively rooting for more than Halle Berry.  An actress that had long paid her dues in television and a run of forgettable features in the early ‘90s before becoming the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for Monster’s Ball, Berry has a knack for finding herself in terrible projects but coming out smelling like a rose.  I recently watched her in the 1996 stinker The Rich Man’s Wife and, aside from believably pulling off a character named Josie, she managed to elevate what should have been a TV movie of the week to something worthy of a cinematic release. A continuing role in the X-Men franchise has kept her afloat when the big swings don’t pan out, but Berry has never gotten back to that same level of promise she showed around that Oscar era.  I mean, the now 55 year old survived the disaster that was 2004’s Catwoman so she must have nine lives of her own.

One glance at Bruised may give the impression that Berry has found the exact kind of project that could be the significant comeback story she has been looking for.  As the director and star of this gritty story following a retired MMA fighter working her way back into the ring for personal redemption at the same time the son she gave up when he was a baby is left on her doorstep, the film’s logline reads like it was tailor-made for an actress with just the kind of gumption Berry has leagues of.  Even considering that Berry wasn’t the first choice for either role (originally, Nick Cassavetes was signed on to direct Blake Lively), her history as a dedicated MMA fan made her an ideal selection because she understood the sport, athletes, and sacrifice required. It doesn’t quite work out as planned…but, we’ll get to that.

Jackie Justice (Berry, The Call) used to be someone special in the brutal sport of MMA cage fighting until she lost her nerve and walked away from it all.  Years later she’s barely scraping by, working odd jobs she often loses due to her temper.  Living with her boyfriend (Adan Canto, X-Men: Days of Future Past) who wants her to get back into the ring, Jackie simply wants to forget that part of her life, but the past has a way of delivering a right hook when she least expects it.  That sly jab comes when the six-year-old son she abandoned as an infant is dropped off by her pill riddled mother (Adriane Lenox, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) in the middle of the night.  Refusing to speak after seeing his informant father gunned down, Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.) was told his mother was dead so this woman before him, worked over by life, is difficult to accept.

With the added responsibility of a child to take care of, Jackie begins to clean up her act.  That means ridding her life of several of her addictions, both chemically and personally.  It takes a while for Michelle Rosenfarb’s script to get around to taking care of business and it’s one of Bruised’s drawbacks that the film moves slowly through several situations that should be more incidental than they wind up being.  Basically, it keeps us from meeting Jackie’s new trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) for that much longer and that is just…not acceptable.  As it turns out, this is the most interesting character in the entire film and after we are introduced the viewer spends the rest of the film waiting for them to show up again.  It helps that Atim is such an electric presence onscreen that they could be playing a Bingo card and I’d want to watch them buy groceries.

That a secondary character moves into being the central character the viewer relates to speaks to another problem with Bruised.  Ostensibly the leading character is Jackie but for much of the film she’s so flimsy that it’s hard to find a way into her side of things.  Berry doesn’t help matters with a performance that’s overly earnest in the fight scenes and way too dialed back in the quieter moments.  If it’s worth anything, the scenes with Jackie and Manny or Buddhakan are the best of the best because it allows all three performers to shine the brightest.  There’s no question Berry is a gifted actress and once she has less to contend with in terms of moving pieces around her, she’s right on target. 

Built around a handful of fight sequences and trainings for the fight sequences, I was a little disappointed at how poorly filmed and edited the early scenes were and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the final match, what the entirety of the movie was building to, would be much better.  Surprisingly, while I often find these “grand finales” a little overwrought, Berry pulls out all the stops physically and as a director.  You can tell she wanted to get this section, out of all of them, correct and that quest for perfection shows. 

Like the central character, Bruised is often rough around the edges and needs some time to settle down and relax.  Once you get past the some of the scratchier elements that Berry can’t quite smooth out, there’s a fairly decent film to be found with several nicely tuned performances.  It’s not going to be Berry’s new calling card or a golden ticket back to the Oscars, but I think it will continue to open her up to new opportunities like this.  If anything, I was appreciative to be let into Berry’s MMA fandom through this dramatized story that finds occasional emotional resonance through its strongest supporting performances.

Movie Review ~ C’mon C’mon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary filmmaker bonds with his smart-yet-sensitive nephew, whose father struggles with bipolar disorder and is in the grips of a manic episode.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White

Director: Mike Mills

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The first role any actor takes after they’ve won an Oscar is always a bit of a hold your breath moment.  In the wake of being the toast of the town, can they stay true to the career they’d built up until that point and continue to perform within their chosen medium?  Or will they be tempted toward projects that are more about profit than art, resulting in their award being the only truly valuable selling point about them in terms of box office?  Perhaps they pick the right movie that fizzles at the box office.  It’s rare to get the Tom Hanks treatment and go for back-to-back wins like the actor did with 1993’s Philadelphia and then a year later in Forrest Gump

Joaquin Phoenix won his Best Actor Oscar for Joker in 2019 so he won’t be Hanks-ing it but he’ll most likely be in the mix again this year for his work in C’mon C’mon, a prime example of how to land yourself a winner directly after achieving the industry’s top award.  The performance is so good that it nearly erases whatever small discomfort this critic was harboring for Phoenix’s win in a role that was dynamically performed but found in a movie that lacked a moral center.  Paired with a first-rate child actor (newcomer Woody Norman) and a former child actor (veteran Gaby Hoffmann), under the direction of Mike Mills (20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon gives Phoenix the opportunity to show yet another side to his acting that is refreshing, honest, and true.

With her ex-husband living in another state and suffering another emotional collapse, Viv (Hoffmann, This is My Life) is unable to keep her life at home with son Jesse (Norman) on track.  So she calls in a favor from her filmmaker brother Johnny (Phoenix, Inherent Vice) to come and stay with Jesse while she tends to the boy’s father.  Unfamiliar with each other, uncle and nephew take a few days to get used to their individual rhythms and peculiarities.  Jesse, for instance, likes to role play a scenario where he’s an orphan being welcomed into the home, eventually staying for the night.  A documentarian, Johnny finds his nephew fascinating but wisely keeps him out of his latest project which involves traveling through cities, interviewing school-age children and asking a wealth of questions about growing up in this current moment in history*

As time stretches on and Viv’s stay with Paul (Scott McNairy, Non-Stop) continues to be extended, Johnny eventually has to take Jesse with him on the next phase of his documentary and that’s where the real bonding occurs.  Nudging close to middle age, Johnny has no children of his own or any potential on the horizon, so any parental traits are learned (and earned) through this time with Jesse…and as you’d imagine it’s not always easy.  Happily, Mills (who also wrote the film) doesn’t weigh the film down with a lot of “getting to know you” bumpy road introduction business.  Instead, there’s a focus on how the older man and younger boy both benefit from being in the company of the other, an approach that deepens the richness of the experience as the film progresses.

Even as a child actor, Phoenix always has had this awkward tension to his acting but there seems to be a differently wired actor on screen this time around.  He’s more relaxed and, while still soft-spoken, not dripping with the pensive and self-contained aloofness he’s often known for.  Warmth was necessary for the role and Phoenix knows it, so he’s very much tailored the work to what Mills needed for Johnny and some of that also must have come from working with Norman who is making a smashing debut.  Not the same kind of cookie cutter child actor plopped into similar dramedies, Norman (a Brit, if you can believe it) exudes wisdom beyond his young years without being precocious or cloying in the process.  He’s a good match not just for Phoenix but the style and tone Mills is going for as well.  I sometimes struggle with Hoffmann’s choices because she seems to be actively rebelling against her child star past but in C’mon C’mon she’s excellent as a do-it-all every person that realizes she needs help and is surprised at the result asking for it yields.  I would love it if this entire trio could find their way into the awards conversation because they’d all deserve it.

The unexpected moments are what make C’mon C’mon so unique and interesting, not to mention emotionally fulfilling.  In his previous films, Mills has shown such a great affinity for the people he creates so audiences that know his work have found a director they can place a certain type of trust in.  More than once, Mills hints at roads he might take which could turn rocky but then he ends up veering in another direction. On a few of these occasions, I was relieved to see the film move into a new lane because by that point, Mills had me so invested on a subconscious level that I cared about the outcome more than I originally thought.  That’s good, understated filmmaking and the result is one of the finest movies of the year.

*Be sure to stay through the credits to hear the real interviews conducted with the realy kids seen in Johnny’s documentary.

Movie Review ~ The Humans

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Erik Blake has gathered three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare.

Stars: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb

Director: Stephen Karam

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I admit it, I admit it.  When I saw the national touring cast of The Humans perform this tiny intimate (read: quiet) show at our cavernous local theater I fell completely asleep before the one act play was half over.  It’s not my proudest moment but writer Stephen Karam’s dialogue just lulled me to sleep, and I would have slept a lot longer if the staging hadn’t included a rather alarming sound which jolted me up.  Widely acclaimed off-Broadway before moving to the Great White Way, The Humans took Broadway by storm and snatched up several key Tony Awards before it closed and then went on tour.  I know the tour struggled for business and it’s not hard to see why.  Karam’s play is meant to be seen in an intimate setting where you don’t have to lean quite so far in to hear what each person is saying.

Karam adapts and directs his play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) in A24’s new film The Humans and at the outset I was hesitant about going back to it seeing that the last time I got involved with the family drama contained within I had a nice nap while doing so.  The first twenty minutes didn’t do anything to assuage my original thoughts. Karam’s tendency to favor natural sound and filming the actors so far back that you can’t read their lips if you can’t hear them begins as alienating but eventually transitions into something your brain adjusts to.  Once it does, it’s like a key has opened up a window and welcomed you into Karam’s Thanksgiving-set story revolving around one family and their surprisingly revealing gathering.

The two-level Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, Minari) is where the Blake family gathers to celebrate the holiday, though the sparsely furnished and barely lit dwelling isn’t exactly inviting.  While the couple’s furniture has yet to arrive thanks to a delay with their moving truck, they’ve done their best to make Brigid’s parents, sister, and grandmother feel welcome with what little comforts they do have.  Still, there’s a tension that hangs in the air at the outset and it’s more than the usual family dynamics which often come to a head during the festive months of the year. 

Maybe it’s because grandmother Momo’s (June Squibb, Palm Springs) dementia has continued to advance, requiring Brigid’s mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, Little Women) to devote more of her time to the care of her mother-in-law.  Perhaps it’s Aimee (Amy Schumer, Trainwreck) and her recent breakup or persistent health issues.  Erik’s (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) aloofness to much of the clear strife going on in front of him is another issue that requires resolution and it’s not hard to read between the lines in Karam’s script that Erik is the character with the most broken pieces to fix and is being held together by the thinnest of protective layers.  When and how these dysfunctions flare up arrive in unexpected ways with solutions that don’t necessarily leave audiences with the answers they are used to getting.

It’s one of the strong selling points of The Humans that it stays so true to its stage counterpart…and a reason why it may be a tough nut to crack for many viewers.  It’s so stage-bound that you do feel as if you’re watching a filmed version of a live play at times, a feeling that isn’t helped by one (masterfully constructed) shot which pulls back to show the multi-level set as if we were in the balcony of a theater watching the show. 

Directorially, Karam isn’t quite a strong as the script he provided so it’s a good thing he has cast the film so exceedingly well.  Jenkins, Squibb, and Yeun are wonderful in their roles and Feldstein continues to show a talent for portraying complicated characters that aren’t afraid to be abrasive.  The vulnerability in Schumer’s solid performance will surprise a good many of her naysayers but it’s Houdyshell’s show, and you can easily see why she won a Tony for the same role on Broadway.  Karam likes long takes and that’s perfect for several of Houdyshell’s scenes that require a range of emotions to play out in real time.  While Deirdre isn’t always a pleasant person to be around, I left the film wanting to know far more about her than any other character and that’s a sure sign Houdyshell has done her job on an exemplary level.

I think The Humans is a tad too reserved to break into the noisier races this year and that’s unfortunate because Houdyshell should absolutely get noticed for her work, as should production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) for their focused efforts on making Karam’s world come to life so seamlessly from stage to screen.  It takes a while to get its engines up to speed but when it does there are some fascinating characters created, with issues ready to be digested along with your own Thanksgiving meal.

Movie Review ~ Encanto

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Colombian girl has to face the frustration of being the only member of her family without magical powers.

Stars: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Wilmer Valderrama, Adassa, Diane Guerrero, Mauro Castillo, Angie Cepeda, Jessica Darrow, Rhenzy Feliz, Carolina Gaitán, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Maluma

Directors: Jared Bush, Byron Howard,

Co Director: Charise Castro Smith

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the release of Encanto, a milestone is reached for Walt Disney Animation Studios.  This spirited musical bursting with color and tuneful songs is the 60th feature film released by the legendary animation division.  Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the studio has had its fair share of high and low points over the ensuing 75 years and even acquiring animation pioneer Pixar couldn’t backburner their own output.  Producing many bona fide hits and Oscar winners, not to mention an array of dazzling shorts to proceed their many full-length movies, Walt Disney Animation Studios is consistently pushing the boundaries on exploring new cultures and experiences that reach out to audiences globally and Encanto is no different.

Deep in the heart of the Columbian mountains, there is a town that was created as a refuge during a time of war through the power of a miracle gift the villagers come to know as the Encanto.  The original family that started the town, the Madrigals, were blessed with an additional gift. Each Madrigal has had a special talent bestowed upon them when they reached a young age.  Some had strength, some could speak to animals, some could heal through food, each endowment was unique and often brought forth something that was already inside the person.  Every Madrigal was given this gift…except for Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, In the Heights) who failed to receive one during her ceremony and has never known why. 

It’s during the newest ceremony for her young cousin and the festivities surrounding his new ability that fissures within both the figurative magic and literal house the magic built begin to appear, causing Mirabel to investigate the history of her family further.  Clues lead her down a path that point her toward an uncle (John Leguizamo, The Night Clerk) who fell out of favor with Abuela Alma Madrigal, the matriarch of the clan, and is not spoken of anymore and the possibility that he may be affecting the current state of the miracle.  With the family seen as a source of strength for the town, Abuela Alma is pressured to keep any hints of weakness within her children and grandchildren under wraps. Consequently, Mirabel is forced to take drastic measures if she hopes to use ordinary means to accomplish an extraordinary mission.

Accompanied by a series of tuneful songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda (already having quite the good November having just released his feature directional debut tick, tick…BOOM! on Netflix last week) that are pleasing to the ear but never quite get under your skin, Encanto bursts with color and movement from the beginning.  I’m always amazed how the animators seem to find new hues in the rainbow with each film they debut, and every swirl of shaded pastel or dash of a vibrant primary palette makes your eyes bug out a little further.  There were a few moments during Encanto’s more action heavy moments that have such specific sequences of events where I wondered how long it took to storyboard the movements before the animation could happen.  It’s no wonder these films often can take years to finish. 

Directors Jared Bush & Byron Howard’s 2106 film Zootopia won an Oscar as Best Animated Feature for Disney and for a very good reason.  The animation was detailed and complex and the story supported it all with an interesting plot that balanced developed characters with some truly hilarious moments.  Much of those same elements are on display here.  The characters in Encanto feel emotionally whole and formed as humans, rather than cartoons.  When it does delve into more of the humorous parts, it is legitimately funny, and the belly laughs that emerge feel like they are emanating from a satisfying place.  While the voice acting is on target, I couldn’t help but feel like some of the voices were auto pitched to sound younger…but I can’t confirm that.

I don’t find it as easy to sit through animated films as I did even five years ago, and I think it’s because they start to all blend together after a while.  That isn’t the case with Encanto which has the aura of a bold fragrance which pleasantly lingers long after you’ve left the theater.  Adults as well as kids will find something to enjoy within the frames and kudos to Disney for continuing their efforts to travel the world in search of the next story and culture to explore.

Movie Review ~ House of Gucci

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel their legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately…murder.

Stars: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, Camille Cottin, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 158 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If you had asked me (or many Hollywood odds-makers) a few months ago about Ridley Scott’s chances in 2021 for finally snagging that elusive Best Director Oscar he’s been chasing for years, I would have likely told you that with two high profile films releasing within the last quarter of the year he was sure to get in for at least one.  Well, despite October’s The Last Duel being quite impressive and receiving fairly good reviews from critics, the studio made a critical blunder by opening it the same weekend the repulsive Halloween Kills came out and it tanked…big time.  Now Scott is back with House of Gucci, his second time at bat this year and it’s an even bigger project (the Knights of the Middle Ages never stood a chance against Scheming Italian Fashion Designers) so the stakes are higher. 

What we have here is a limited series for TV/streaming that happens to be a nearly three-hour movie.  So, somewhere along the line a serious error was made and the script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna based off of the book by Sara Gay Forden was sent to MGM’s film division instead of its television extension.  That’s the only reason I can think of for why Scott’s film has such a sprawling enormity that it eventually creates a black hole where the final act should be.  I have nothing against a movie with a butt numbing running time and have been known to turn up my nose at those who want every movie to be 90 minutes.  The thing is this, some movies have to carry a longer running length for a variety of reasons.  What they also need to have is, well, an ending and that’s what House of Gucci sorely lacks.  An ending.

Let’s back up almost three hours to the beginning of the film, when the future looked a little brighter for Scott and company.  Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver, Annette) is out for his morning routine when he encounters a man that will change the destiny of his family and the Gucci clothing line forever.  We’ll have to wait decades (in movie time) to find out precisely what that is because we flashback to an earlier period when Maurizio wasn’t involved with his family business but instead preferred to go through life without having his legacy define him.  The moniker definitely was attractive to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga, A Star is Born), a 22-year-old who met him at a party and cleverly positioned herself in his life so in the end he couldn’t say no to a relationship, and eventual marriage, to her.  Despite the protestations of his father (Jeremy Irons, Assassin’s Creed) who believed his son’s fiancé to be a gold-digger, Maurizio was so taken with the woman that he willingly gave up his father’s favor for her.

It was years later, and on Patrizia’s behest, that Maurizio’s uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino, The Irishman) convinced his nephew to come back into the fold and take his rightful place in the line of Gucci royalty.  Once Maurizio was in, so was Patrizia…and that’s when the couple began cleaning house.  Targeting relatives they had once used as pawns, like black sheep Paolo (Jared Leto, The Little Things), Patrizia and Maurizio began to recreate Gucci as the luxury brand it would eventually become…but not under their regime.  Overzealous with their power and spending, the couple would go through rocky times, eventually leading Patrizia down a deadly path. 

The question most will be interested in will be how Lady Gaga’s sophomore effort in a feature film fares compared to her Oscar-nominated turn in A Star is Born.  There was a stretch of time where many thought the singer would win the award for her truly star-making performance but it’s this follow-up which is the real test.  The result? A solid B.  She attacks the role full on and you can tell she takes her job seriously, but the intensity of the acting is all over the map from scene to scene.  Part of the blame could fall on Scott for not reeling her in a bit more and helping her understand emotional arc, but by the end she’s almost deliriously wild-eyed to the point of hilarity.  It doesn’t help the scene in question (it’s with Salma Hayek where both are trying to be incognito) is laughably bad in general but her acting here only makes it stand out that much more.

Others in the cast sort of exist in her wake, with only Leto and Pacino surfacing occasionally to tell us they are also in the movie.  For as much churn as Leto seems to stir up any time he’s in a movie, he’s an immersive actor like few are.  Unrecognizable in heavy prosthetics and a fat suit, he doesn’t let the make-up do the acting for him…this is all Leto and it’s without question the best thing in the movie.  Pacino exists in an area between Leto and Gaga, sometimes he’s on the money, other times he’s overblown.  Either version of him worked for me.  Driver is surprisingly beige in the role, failing to bring much life to the part.  Maybe he was just adrift in the sea of Gaga and didn’t have much of a life raft?  Bless her heart but Hayek (Eternals) is playing such a terrible role, terribly written and terribly filmed, and the actress does her best to make something of it.  Alas, blood from a stone.  Blood from a stone.

Scott’s film painstakingly recreates the period in which all of these infamous events take place, down to the décor and couture that were de rigueur.  The fierce attention to detail is a dream to watch and from a production standpoint House of Gucci is a huge success on a scale of moviemaking with a capital “M”.  You would expect nothing less of Scott who is a master at this type of product.  Unfortunately, all the intricate features in the world can’t save some silly side characters and acting that grows increasingly campier (including the accents) as the film progresses.  Then there’s the jittery ending which barely exists, made more disappointing because it’s handled so poorly, and you have a movie that begins by making quite the impression but leaves a bad taste in your mouth by the end. 

Movie Review ~ The Feast

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A wealthy family gathers for a sumptuous dinner at their ostentatious home in the Welsh mountains. When a mysterious young woman arrives to be their waitress for the evening, her quiet yet disturbing presence begins to unravel their lives.

Stars: Annes Elwy, Nia Roberts, Julian Lewis Jones, Steffan Cennydd, Sion Alun Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Lisa Palfrey, Caroline Berry

Director: Lee Haven Jones

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  You’d think that by now people would learn.  After countless movies over the years have shown land and animals rebelling against crooked land developers, evil miners, mad scientists, and villainous officiants that should know better, there are still those that tempt fate by messing with Mother Nature.  Or whatever Mother Nature looks like from country to country, tradition to tradition, culture to culture.  You can’t escape the wrath of a tree root that doesn’t want to be chopped or a plot of earth that doesn’t feel like being tilled and getting all rumpled up.  Most of the time, the results are a good round of devastating special effects bonanzas but when you drift over into the European market you can rest assured that when retribution is doled out, the grand finale isn’t going to be a walk in the park.

That’s absolutely the case with The Feast, a Welsh film from director Lee Haven Jones that sets an ominous tone (literally) from the start and maintains a tense grip on your nerves throughout.  There’s seldom a moment when you can let your guard down and not because there are jump scares waiting around one or more of the dark corners in the secluded modern home the film centers itself in.  The real scares here are from the sense that the impending doom could somehow be prevented at any time but those in peril sally forth without bothering to check in with their surroundings and notice things are amiss.  Once The Feast begins (and the actual feast referred to in the title starts) there is no going back for any of the guests, hosts, or viewer.

A young woman named Cadi (Annes Elwy, Apostle) arrives to assist well-to-do Glenda (Nia Roberts), in hosting a dinner party for an investor her husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) works with.  They’ve invited their neighbor from a nearby farm, with a plot of land not that dissimilar to theirs where they have already tore down the woman’s childhood home and erected the chic but soulless house where they are assembling the meal.  Also attending will be Gwyn and Glenda’s two troubled sons, ice-blonde health nut Gweirydd (Sion Alun Davies) and sandy-haired screw-up Guto (Steffan Cennydd).  Right away we can see that Cadi either isn’t who she says she is or has an alternative agenda with the family, but to what end.  Getting to know the family during the day as the meal is prepared, we start to see hints at her true nature, only to have our expectations altered as the evening progresses.

Credit to screenwriter Roger Williams and director Jones for keeping things moving at a good clip without sacrificing any little character details along the way in The Feast.  Cadi acts like a tiny fly on the wall and observes the inner workings of the family, so we see firsthand how odd Gweirydd is and that he might be hiding a secret.  The small actions of other characters hint at this too, you have to pay close attention to pick these up and it only adds to the richness of the finale if you understand why things are unraveling as they do.  The violence is grotesque at times but sort of beautifully done in its own way as well.   Fans of folk horror will, pardon the pun, eat this one up.

Movie Review ~ Zeros and Ones

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Called to Rome to stop an imminent terrorist bombing, a soldier desperately seeks news of his imprisoned brother — a rebel with knowledge that could thwart the attack. Navigating the capital’s darkened streets, he races to a series of ominous encounters to keep the Vatican from being blown up.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Phil Neilson, Anna Ferrara, Salvatore Ruocco, Valerio Mastandrea, Babak Karimi

Director: Abel Ferrara

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  I’m going to relay an anecdote to you and I wanted you to go with me on this journey.  OK? 

OK.

I only watched The Oprah Winfrey Show on a regular basis for its last season because, what can I say, I was simply a very late adopter when it came to the most popular talk show on the planet.  During that last season I was watching an interview with The Judds, Naomi and Wynonna to be exact, and they were talking about their relationship and how they made it work.  More than anything, when she was faced with a bad situation that was what it was but that she had some control over her participation in, Wynonna said that she had learned to say to a number of things in her life “That may be fine for you but that doesn’t work for me.” and then being willing to get up and leave that particular situation in the past.  I think I had what Oprah would classify as an “A-Ha!” moment right then and there and I never looked back.  I often use that phrase in times when I’m feeling cornered, step back, and recognize I actually do have more autonomy over my actions than I originally thought.

You get this lengthy look into my brain today for a few reasons.  One, it makes this post that much longer because I have so little to say about director Abel Ferrara’s newest film Zeros and Ones that I had to think of something else to include in my write-up.  I also needed to give you background into why I made it through all 85 minutes of this film (yes, you actually DO have to watch to the very end of this movie) and then said “That doesn’t work for me.” turned off my TV, and went directly to bed.  Naming your film after the scores the movie will likely get is very prophetic on the part of Ferrara, so the longtime director with his fair share of hits and misses should be given a nice pat on the back and then a good kick in the pants for such a lazy and pointless endeavor that robs the viewer of their time and its star of not one but two good roles. 

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) appears as himself at the beginning and end of the movie for some inexplicable reason that he actually does try to explain (but doesn’t really) and only further confuses whatever narrative Ferrara is trying to chase in Zeros and Ones.  Hawke then goes on to play twin brothers, one searching for the other in Rome shortly after a terrorist bomb targets the Vatican…or else he’s trying to prevent the Vatican from being blown up.  Honestly, I never really understood what was going on because there’s so much of us just watching Hawke tool around the city as one brother or another either behind a mask (production was done during the early height of COVID) or in full crazy mode.  The image you see on the poster is a Hawke that isn’t present in this film…false advertising, for shame!

One of the most famous songs The Judds recorded was ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’.  Well, as it relates to Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones, ‘Love Can Build a Bridge but Ferrara Can’t Make a Cohesive Movie’…and that doesn’t work for me, nor will it for you.  So skippable, I was almost tempted to tell you off the bat to skip my review.  Almost. Hope you stuck around!

Movie Review ~ Last Survivors

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A father and son living off the grid for 20 years encounter an outsider who threatens to destroy the utopia they’ve built.

Stars: Drew Van Acker, Alicia Silverstone, Stephen Moyer

Director: Drew Mylrea

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Here’s a well-made, quiet, and curious movie for all you out there willing to stick around for some payoff after what appears to be an initial suggestion of a film that’s quite different than what it winds up being.  Last Survivors wasn’t a film that was on my radar and is a rarity in that it sort of just plopped into my lap unexpectedly.  Once I heard it had Alicia Silverstone (aka an occupant of a top slot of The MN Movie Man Will See Anything X Actor is In List) as one of the three leads, a viewing was a forgone conclusion. When I finally did get around to watching it, I was surprised not just that I sort of liked this strange mix of wilderness thriller and drama, but just how well made it was.

One of the first things you’ll see in Last Survivors is a bare butt, and while I’m not sure it’s star Drew Van Acker’s gluteus maximus on display, I do know that director Drew Mylrea has a particular fascination with it.  It’s not the last time we’ll see it either, as Van Acker (or his butt double) has a fondness for dropping trou and showing his ass-ets that would make Mel Gibson blush.  Anyway, curving back on topic, Van Acker’s Jake is a sheltered young man living off the land deep in the forest (actually Butte, Montana) with his father Troy (Stephen Moyer, Concussion).  Cut off from the outside world to avoid a plague that has wiped out much of the world’s population, Troy protects his son by keeping outsiders away with deadly force.  When Troy is injured and requires supplies they don’t have, Jake sets out to see if one of the abandoned homes nearby has anything they can use. 

His search leads him to Henrietta’s ranch and, understandably, the naïve Jake’s first experience seeing a woman is both a shock and an opportunity.  He wants to know more but remembers the warnings his father (a clear misogynist) has given him not just about the disease that has spread which took his mother but also of the ways women in general act.  Throwing caution to the wind, he risks it and forms a bond with Henrietta (Silverstone, Valley Girl), a woman that has come to this remote location for reasons of her own.  Why she’s there, what really happened to the population, and answers to several other questions are uncovered the longer Jake spends time away from his controlling father.

Writer Josh Janowicz has a nice little film going for much of the time we spend with Last Survivors.  It’s especially kind to Silverstone’s character, giving equal time to exploring Henrietta’s situation and not making it solely about Jake’s coming of age (more of catching up to his own maturity than anything) or the deception Troy has been creating for his son.  The last twenty minutes or so of the movie gets a little too messy and introduces complications which feel out of place when the rest was so level-pitched.  Even with little romantic chemistry between Silverstone and Van Acker, the two have good rapport in their scenes.  It’s all a little too run of the mill to be memorable (even the rump is sort of average!) so while it works in the moment, the memory of Last Survivors doesn’t stick around long after the credits end.