Movie Review ~ Better Nate than Ever

The Facts:

Synopsis: 13-year-old Nate Foster has big Broadway dreams. There’s only one problem — he can’t even land a part in the school play. But when his parents leave town, Nate and his best friend Libby sneak off to the Big Apple for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove everyone wrong.
Stars: Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Joshua Bassett, Michelle Federer, Norbert Leo Butz, Lisa Kudrow
Director: Tim Federle
Rated: PG
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When I watch movies now, I tend to compare them to movies I saw when I was of a certain age.  With the nostalgia trend in full kick, audiences approaching their mid-forties are fond of finding their new The Goonies or Gremlins or Fast Times at Ridgemont High… to name a few.  Of course, nothing is going to be or beat those films because they were of their time and so perfect for that point in the history of when they were made.  Then there are the movies I see that I wish had been made when I was a kid.  Plenty of titles I see now would have been so great to see when I was younger and the Disney+ offering Better Nate Than Ever is an excellent example of that.

Yep, I’m one of those theater kids (maybe now I should call myself a former, or reformed, theater kid?) who had big Broadway dreams when I was in high school and probably for some time before that.  While I now know there were oodles of old MGM/Warner Bros. movies about guys and gals that fled to NYC with the lights of the Great White Way dancing through their brains, back then, I didn’t know from what was in the small section of the video store I frequented.  Had Better Nate Than Ever, with its plot of a teen that ditches school and heads to NYC for a Broadway audition, been available to me, I indeed would have found it, loved it, and probably been a stowaway on a Greyhound to NYC along with my best friend too.

Based on former Broadway dancer Tim Federle’s bestselling novel, Better Nate Than Ever is cute family entertainment that reaches the rafters with heart and ambition, even if it doesn’t always land its double turns.  Directed by Federle, who also adapts his novel, the movie centers around Nate Foster (newcomer Rueby Wood), a 13-year-old Pittsburgh teenager who lives for the stage even if he can’t get a lead role in the school play.  His best friend Libby (Aria Brooks, Harriet) is often by his side but doesn’t have quite the passion for acting; she just wants to be where Nate is, unlike Nate’s brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) who it appears wants nothing to do with him.  When Nate’s parents go on an unplanned weekend trip and then leave their boys alone to care for themselves, Libby convinces Nate to quickly bus it to NYC to audition for a Broadway musical which they both think could be his big break.

Of course, hijinks ensue as the two teenagers run into several obstacles as they travel as unaccompanied minors across state lines and into The Big Apple, where the promise of stardom awaits Nate.  Never mind he hasn’t auditioned at this level before and is unprepared for the process, stage parents, competitive auditioners, or unexpected wardrobe malfunctions mid-audition.  Also, though Nate knows his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow, Like a Boss) has lived in NYC as an actress for some time, the bad blood between her and his mom convinces him not to ring her up just in case she mends fences and turns him in.  Who do you think is the first person he runs into before his audition?

The overall air of fantasy permeates the entire short run time of Better Nate Than Ever, down to a few well-staged but quite stage-bound musical numbers that don’t do much to add anything but padding.  If the entire movie was a musical, I could see these interludes adding something, but they are so sporadic as to feel like afterthoughts.  I’d almost have rather seen this done as a full-on musical to demonstrate Nate’s talents further.  As it is, Wood is a charming performer possessing a pleasant voice but operates on a somewhat limited range in that regard — you can feel their voice is almost ready to break/change. 

The film is saved by a commitment to telling a story for all the Nates who could be watching it, seeing their opportunity to shine and pursue their dreams, either locally or on a larger scale.  There’s a strong message that success doesn’t have to be big to be important or worthy and to celebrate every win.  That reinforcement is critical to share with everyone, especially developing minds, as they figure out what makes them happy and fills their cup.  I know I would have taken a lot away from this if a VHS copy of the movie found its way to my player back in the day.  For that, I give Better Nate Than Ever a solid standing ovation. 

Movie Review ~ Home Sweet Home Alone

2

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being left at home by himself for the holidays, 10-year-old Max Mercer must work to defend his home from a married couple trying to steal back a valuable heirloom.

Stars: Ellie Kemper, Rob Delaney, Archie Yates, Aisling Bea, Kenan Thompson, Timothy Simons

Director: Dan Mazer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: “Holiday classics were meant to be broken.”  That’s the tagline being used on the marketing for Home Sweet Home Alone, the sixth (!) film in the series that began back in 1990 with the cheeky cheery blockbuster.  It’s a pretty bold statement for any movie to make, least of all one that is so far down the franchise ladder.  In my mind, I was thinking director Dan Mazer and writers Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell (both from Saturday Night Live) had worked up something clever that would rise above the rather tacky logline.  Instead, both they and the film are firmly on The MN Movie Man’s naughty list for 2021 because this isn’t just a lump of coal…it’s a pile of something else entirely.

Formalities out of the way first.  The story revolves not around young tyke Max (Jojo Rabbit scene-stealer Archie Yates) but financially strapped dunderhead married couple Pam and Jeff McKenzie (Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney) who think the boy has made off with a doll that could get them out of their dire straits.  That Max has been mistakenly left behind by his immediate and extended family who have jetted off to Toyko for the holidays is barely the B story.  Halfway through the movie you realize Day and Seidell are far more interested in the perspective of the bad guys than the boy forced to defend his home from a suburban couple who don’t have the first clue about how to break into their own house, much less his.

The result is a painfully unfunny 90 minutes with no one to root for, nothing to care about, and a general awe of just how many wrong decisions could be made in a single film.  If the filmmakers won’t even go the distance with making the movie comically adept, what’s the point?  I kept asking myself (often out loud) who this movie was made for.  Kids won’t find any of the hijinks the least bit hilarious because the physical humor skews so violently painful and realistic, something that will surely astonish their adult parents who will already be aghast at the lack of timely jokes.  Dated references to OJ Simpson and Beverly Hills Cop feel like they came from a script written ten or more years ago and that’s just the tip of the out-of-left-field references iceberg that act more like cultural touchstones for the writer’s own memory book than anyone else’s. 

The small attempts made to connect this movie to what has come before offer glimpses at the right direction the filmmakers could have taken things.  Keep your eyes and ears open for references to the McAllisters and one family member that pops up, along with an admittedly clever (hence the 1 star) update to the video Kevin watches in the first film.  Why the writers and Mazer (The Exchange) didn’t go further with this is beyond me.  We definitely didn’t want to spend so much time with Kemper (Sex Tape) and Delaney (Bombshell) and their obnoxious family, including Tim Simons (Draft Day) showing up as a Cousin Eddie-ish knob that rankles Delaney at every turn. Who cares that this couple needs to sell their house because the husband can’t find a job as in the IT field? Would the original Home Alone have been such a hit if we followed Joe Pesci’s character home and hung out with his relatives? This is premiering on Disney+, a streaming service that took all of the major swear words and objectionable content out of Adventures in Babysitting, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised what they’ve done here.

Let’s also just acknowledge another major problem – the movie looks absolutely awful.  Within the first ten minutes there’s an editing error involving Kemper’s character showing up in two different scenes at once that’s so noticeable I rewound it just to make sure I didn’t fully dream it. How did this make it through a professional editor’s gaze?  There’s also a terrifically terrible scene where the duo is trying to climb over a large wall when we can clearly see a lower wall right next to them…and it’s not for comic effect.  Bad use of green screen which make the actors look like paper dolls and a general lack of kinetic energy in the finale keep the film as lugubrious as the script. Sanitized beyond all measure to leave no one truly “bad”, this is quite truly a pointless holiday cash-in on a beloved family chestnut.

With the first three Home Alone films available on Disney+ (as bad as the third movie is, it looks like The Grapes of Wrath in comparison to this), there’s just no reason to even consider watching Home Sweet Home Alone.  It will only break your heart in unbearable ways, especially when they corrupt the beautiful Oscar-nominated John Williams score and attempt to stir emotions when it doesn’t deserve our sentiment.

Streaming Review ~ Loki (Episodes 1 & 2)


The Facts:

Synopsis: After stealing the Tesseract during the events of Avengers: Endgame, an alternate version of Loki is brought to the mysterious Time Variance Authority who give Loki a choice: face being deleted from existence due to being a “time variant” or help fix the timeline and stop a greater threat.

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sophia Di Martino, Wunmi Mosaku, Richard E. Grant, Sasha Lane

Director: Kate Herron

Running Length: ~50 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Can you believe it’s been nearly two years since the last Marvel film was released in theaters?  It’s true, not since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home have we seen one of our favorite superheroes on the big screen.  Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may have missed out on their chance to see Black Widow in theaters this past year when it was delayed due to the pandemic, but in 2021 we’ll make up for lost time as that film is released along with a whopping three others, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. It hasn’t been too quiet in Marvel’s world, though. We’ve all had our fair share of consolation prizes in not one, but two well-received television series that have premiered on Disney+. 

The streaming service watched the quirky WandaVision become a bona fide hit with its tonal differences from the previous films.  It had its moments where it reared its more Marvel-y moments but by and large this felt like a self-contained bit of creative freedom that wouldn’t have been possible outside of Disney’s weekly platform release structure.  This was followed fairly quickly with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier mere weeks after WandaVision concluded its 9-episode run.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s 6-episodes, by comparison, were much more like the traditional Marvel movie.  Not that that was an all-together bad thing.  Allowing supporting player Anthony Mackie (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) to rise to leading man status was welcome and if Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya) didn’t do as much to forward his character as I would have liked, the duo proved to be a smart pairing.

Now comes Loki, the third Marvel series to debut on Disney+ and it appears to be the most ambitious one to date.  But wait, you may be asking, didn’t Loki, you know, perish in Avengers: Endgame?  Well, that’s where the storytellers in the big Marvel warehouse have worked some magic and come up with an interesting way to keep Loki alive, but as a “variant” of himself.  In fact, according to the Time Variance Authority (TVA), there could be multiple timelines that we follow if we aren’t careful and that’s why they are there, to help police the master timeline and ensure it is proceeding as intended. 

When he steals the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Only Lovers Left Alive) upends the timeline and sets into motion a series of events that puts him in front of Ravonna Lexus Renslaye (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, A Wrinkle in Time) from the TVA who prefers that he be “reset”, i.e. zapped, for his infraction.  She’s persuaded by TVA agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson, Bliss) to release Loki to his watch because he needs the trickster’s help in solving a mystery currently confounding the TVA.  Apparently, someone has been jumping through timelines and getting rid of any TVA security detail that comes looking for them.  Agreeing to help Mobius but planning his own escape by infiltrating the TVA from within, Loki becomes an unlikely ally to combat a most unexpected villain.

Above and beyond the production design for the series which has a retro vibe from the late 60’s/early 70’s mixed with a dash of steampunk (not the annoying kind), there’s a boldness to Loki that feels like another step forward for Marvel where their television endeavors are concerned.  Further, it’s totally different than WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, showing that Marvel is having fun experimenting with their style as well as their substance.  Director Kate Herron keeps the vibe fresh and fun, allowing Hiddleston free range to let his Loki grow in stature without making the villain too unlikable.  It’s also a great showing for Wilson, who takes the role just seriously enough to be convincing but not overtly dry.

Time-travel shows can be a tough sell because it’s easy to play fast and loose with the rules.  At times during the first two episodes there are some head-scratching moments where the action can be tough to track, but that is what the rewind button is for.  Still, I wouldn’t want to keep having to think too terribly hard over the remaining four episodes about how the timelines merge together but trust that it will all line up by the finale.  Loki proves that Marvel is running a solid three for three.  Still to come in 2021 is an animated series (What If…?) and two more live-action entries, Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye.  Based on the track record so far, the bar is set awfully high for what’s next.