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 ~ Body Cam


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a routine traffic stop results in the unexplained, grisly death of her colleague, a cop realizes footage of the incident will play for her eyes only. As the attacks mount, she races to understand the supernatural force behind them

Stars: Mary J. Blige, Nat Wolff, David Zayas, David Warshofsky, Demetrius Grosse, Anika Noni Rose

Director: Malik Vitthal

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Before this whole pandemic, when you heard a moving was “skipping a theatrical release” that was often industry code for a turkey being served up to audiences as a TV dinner instead of as a restaurant meal.  The film likely had a rough gestation and the studio wasn’t confident it would be able to see a marginal return on its investment during the opening weekend, even if some sliver of good word of mouth could propel it forward.  All the big studios would have one or two of these movies a year and no big name star or project was totally immune from it.

If there’s one good thing to come out of this recent pandemic, it’s that this swift shift to streaming isn’t looked on as a death knell as easily as it was before.  This could be the studio simply wanting to keep pushing content out in a slim market to eager consumers tiring of the binge watch instead of just the usual content dump.  With a severe lack of new movies coming out week to week we’re already seeing movies that otherwise would have been overlooked do quite well thanks mostly to their availability, to say nothing of their overall quality.

That’s one way to look at the recent quieter than usual release of the supernatural cop thriller Body Cam, a movie I just heard about a few weeks ago when Paramount released a not entirely gripping trailer.  Starring music icon and two-time Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige, it was originally meant for a summer release but was made available mid-May with VOD to follow in June.  Now, a movie that would surely have been dismissed quickly had it played in your local multiplex has an opportunity to be evaluated within a different set of qualifiers.  Despite being tiresomely formulaic at it’s core, it isn’t half bad.

Back on the active duty after an altercation with a civilian earned her an eight-week suspension, Officer Renee Lomito-Smith (Blige, Rock of Ages) is paired with rookie Danny (Nat Wolff, Semper Fi) for her first night back.  The two are first on the scene where a fellow cop was murdered by a supernatural force we got a brief glimpse of in the film’s opening sequence.  Renee sees it too in the dashcam footage that mysteriously is erased when her superiors try to view it later.  After more murders take place that involve members of the force, Renee launches her own private investigation and brings Danny along with her, eventually leading to a missing healthcare worker (Anika Noni Rose, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who has suffered a terrible loss.  As Renee gets closer to discovering how the worker is tied to her fellow cops, her own troubled past which she’s tried to shut away comes back to haunt her…in increasingly terrifying ways.

You get the feeling watching Body Cam that it’s a mash-up of two scripts that were missing key elements.  The original writer, Richmond Riedel, is known more as an editor and while the producers brought in Nicholas McCarthy (The Prodigy) to rewrite the material, it never quite succeeds as either a cop thriller or supernatural horror film.  Though McCarthy has a firm foothold in the horror genre based on his resume, you’d think he would have been able to tip the scales toward creating a better terror mythology to liven up an otherwise realistic movie.  I kept expecting a twist regarding Renee that never came, and I think viewers savvy to this type of movie will know what I mean…though maybe with The Woman in the Window coming out shortly that angle was a bit passé.

Thankfully, director Malik Vitthal delivers in several key spooky sequences, knowing just when to reveal frights and not going for cheap scares.  As is the case with so many of these movies, people go where they shouldn’t go and for the love of God why do they insist on heading into a basement without turning all the lights on just because they hear a floorboard creak?  The violence is surprisingly gory, with one especially graphic make-up effect being particularly chilling – the image stuck with me long after the movie ended.  Brief attempts at social commentary regarding relations between the police and minorities feel shoehorned in and the movie would be far more interesting (especially considering where it winds up) if more attention was paid to this very pertinent topic.

A titan in the music industry who has long earned her title as the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Blige still isn’t as strong an actress as she is as singer.  That tentativeness works at times with this character who is riding the edge of emotional trauma; it was a strange dichotomy of a performance. I completely bought her as this cop on a mission but for the most part her line readings come off as strangely stilted.  This isn’t meant as a dig but Blige is best when she wasn’t saying anything at all.  Her reactions to what was going on and when she is in pursuit were the most intriguing part.  The oddball relationship with her and Wolff was interesting to see develop and I wish we got to see more of Rose throughout the film.  Actually, in a perfect world Rose and Blige would have swapped roles because Rose is silent for the majority.  It goes back to the script being half-baked and not fully developing Blige’s emotionally bruised cop/mother as much as they could – there’s little resolution to either side of her persona by the conclusion.

At 96 minutes, the pacing in Body Cam could be tightened up a bit, especially in the final act with a totally unnecessary epilogue but the take away is that this comes across as an easy-going weekend watch.  Joining other recent above average on demand thrillers like 1BR, The Wretched, and We Summon the Darkness, it has the requisite thrills to make you consider turning the lights on and enough of a plot that you won’t completely put it all together before our leading lady does.  It may turn out to be rather routine but up until a certain point, it has its moments.

Movie Review ~ Ralph Breaks the Internet


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph”, Ralph and Vanellope, now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade, leading them into a new adventure.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot

Director: Phil Johnston, Rich Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t a ride or die fan of Wreck-It-Ralph when it first was released.  It took me a while to find my way to the movie in theaters and though as a child of the ‘80s I appreciated the nostalgia its 8-bit arcade game lead character stirred within me it doesn’t sit high on my list of favorite Disney films.  Though the sequel was hotly anticipated I didn’t even take the time to re-watch the original before taking in this colorful follow-up that I wound up having fun at.  This one seemed to push the envelope more than its predecessor and was stuffed with enough rapid fire jokes to keep your head spinning.  There are a plethora of Easter eggs to be found, especially for those that remember the early days of the World Wide Web and recall the way you would hold your breath when AOL would attempt to connect.

John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) and Sarah Silverman (A Millon Ways to Die in the West) are back to voice our two lead characters with Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) joining the cast as an ally to Silverman’s character. I also got a huge kick out of two scenes featuring every Disney princess that has appeared on film, most voiced by the same women that originally brought them to life.  Slyly commenting on their storybook lives in this #TimesUp brave new world we’re living in, they were the highlight of the film.  While the animation is wonderfully eye-popping I don’t feel the movie sticks in your brain like the best of the Disney animated films do.