Movie Review ~ 8-Bit Christmas

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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 ~ Zoolander 2

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Billy Zane, Fred Armisen, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Justin Bieber, Kyle Mooney

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I guess I just need to start this review by owning up to the hard truth that before doing my homework for Zoolander 2 by re-watching the original, I’d only seen Zoolander once, back on the day it opened three weeks after September 11 in 2001.  Arriving at time when audiences needed a brainless piece of fluff to distract them for a minor amount of time, the comedy was 89 minutes of funny, if perplexing, moments.  For each solid laugh there were a dozen groans and while it did a fair job skewering the easy target of male models and fashionistas, it never left a lasting impression on me.  In the years since it’s evolved into a bit of a cult hit (it did better business on video than it did in theaters), but I never felt the need to revisit it until the sequel came creaking along.

Now, no one is going to accuse director/writer/star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) of missing the boat on cashing in on a sequel to a popular title from his canon.  With Meet the Parents, Madagascar, and Night of the Museum now trilogies, Stiller likely was running through his IMDb page and landed on Zoolander as the target of his next trip to the Stiller well (we should be thankful he didn’t set his sights on Starsky & Hutch or Dodgeball…oh wait, a sequel to Dodgeball is already in development).

A whopping 15 years after the original was released, Zoolander 2 is ready to strut its stuff on a catwalk near you and while overall it’s better made than its predecessor, it suffers from the same chronic forgetability.  Though Stiller and co-star Owen Wilson (Inherent Vice) look remarkably, um, “refreshed”, the jokes and comic foibles of the two dunderhead models start to feel musty halfway through the smorgasbord of cameo appearances and off-the-wall tangents.

A freak accident a decade ago sent former male model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) into exile in Northern New Jersey and split his family apart.  When he’s called out of retirement by Billy Zane bearing an invitation to model in Italy, Derek agrees as a way to show he can be a fit parent and provide for his son.  Meanwhile, Hansel (Wilson) has been hiding out in Malibu, ashamed of a disfigurement that ended his career.  He’s also visited by Zane with the same offer of redemption and in an attempt to find out who he really is, agrees to put his shallow pride to the side and take to the runway.  Soon after their arrival, Derek and Hansel are in the middle of a conspiracy within the fashion world involving a legend that’s part The Da Vinci Code and part acid trip which threatens to end their careers (and lives) for good.

Upping the ante from the original film, the cameos that Stiller has secured are plentiful.  Running the gamut from Susan Boyle to Anna Wintour, Stiller isn’t messing around when it comes to stacking the deck with famous faces even though it’s clear many of them filmed in front of a blue screen and were digitally input into the scenes.  Without question, the majority of the fun derived from revisiting Stiller’s brainless model is picking out the stars that pass through the frame.  And the film earned a full two stars from me in its opening moments when it blessedly offs an annoying pop star that definitely had it coming.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments, because it does have some sequences that are so absurd you can’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all.  To their credit, Stiller and fellow screenwriters Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg insert joke upon joke upon joke so if four are duds there’s sure to be one solid laugh coming right on their heels.  The film gets its best results with Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home) reprising his role as a megalomaniac designer and Kristen Wiig (The Martian) made up to the high heavens as a European fashion maven modeled after Donatella Verasce.  When Ferrell and Wiig are involved, you just have to let the camera roll and they’ll do the work for you.  The biggest surprise of the film is how high Penelope Cruz flies.  The Oscar winner hasn’t been this free for years and she seems to relish the opportunity to play with broad strokes.

Yet overall the film feels as hollow as the fashion world itself.  It’s all fun on the surface and in the moment but it leaves no lasting impression on the viewer.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an overall positive reaction during the screening, I laughed at the most absurd passages (be prepared to let Fred Armisen haunt your dreams as a…well…I shan’t spoil the remarkable vision for you) and enjoyed myself sporadically, but upon reflection it’s simply a well packaged bag of potato chips…more stale air than actual food.

The Silver Bullet ~ Zoolander 2

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Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Release Date: February 12, 2016

Thoughts: In a case of striking while the iron is ice cold, Ben Stiller is resurrecting his dunderhead model character from the 2001 sleeper hit. Released two weeks after the September 11 attacks, the original film represented the first chance for audiences to laugh again with the skewering satire of the model industry that doesn’t exactly (in my mind at least) hold up on repeat viewings. Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) isn’t wanting for directing/acting opportunities or franchise endeavors so I’m curious to see why 2016 was the right time to bring back Derek Zoolander. This teaser is a little on the obnoxious side but with Tropic Thunder screenwriter Justin Theroux (Wanderlust) providing the script, maybe there’s hope for something worth the 15 year wait.