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 ~ The High Note

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A superstar singer and her overworked personal assistant are presented with a choice that could alter the course of their respective careers.

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  If everything had gone as planned in 2020, we’d be sitting smack dab in the middle of the start of summer movie season right about now.  The April releases of No Time to Die and Mulan would have arrived and Black Widow along with Scoob! would have shown up in May.  For this particular weekend we’d be on the cusp of seeing Wonder Woman 1984’s release and that means the talk likely had shifted to the favorite way to combat all the big blockbusters and family friendly animated hyperactive stimuli: the counter-programming.  That’s where a movie like The High Note would have entered the conversation and looking over the list of potential releases from back then I can’t think of a title that would have a greater shot to do some business than this one.

Before we take a look at The High Note, we should first go back to last summer and the movie Late Night.  Arriving with a heap of good buzz from the Sundance Film Festival where Amazon Studios had bought it for a jaw-dropping $13 million, it was expected to be that counter-programming sleeper hit when it was released in June.  Starring Oscar-winner Emma Thompson giving an award-worthy performance, it was an admittedly formulaic comedy written by co-star Mindy Kaling that was still light years better than a number of comedies released in 2019 but it was an unqualified bomb.  This set Amazon scrambling  (and I’m sure sent some execs packing) and it surely has reshaped the way they bought movies in the future, though to be fair the similar failure of Brittany Runs a Marathon later in the year contributed to Amazon’s buyer’s remorse.

So, now we’re back in 2020 and The High Note has arrived from Focus Features and it’s worth mentioning it’s directed by Nisha Ganatra who also was at the helm for Late Night.  Featuring another diverse set of strong co-leads, you could squint and see a lot of similarities between the two films but what The High Note has that Late Night didn’t is some authenticity that helps carry it through it’s more shallow moments.  While it’s not going to win any awards for daring originality, there’s something winning about the way it worms into your heart…and your ears.

Superstar singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) hasn’t put out a new record in years, coasting on the success of several repackaged greatest hit CDs and a sold-out touring schedule that keeps her always on the move.  That’s just fine by her producer Jack (Ice Cube, Ride Along) who doesn’t want to risk new music from Grace disappointing her loyal fans but perplexes her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) who knows Grace has more inside her.  Maggie wants to produce music, too, and seems to have the talent to back it up.  With her good ear and knowledge of Grace the person as well as the singer, she takes a stab at remixing Grace’s album to satisfying, if not career-advancing results.

It’s when Maggie meets singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce, Waves) that she sees the chance to take a step forward and be taken seriously.  David’s gifts are raw but with great potential, something that could benefit from Maggie’s guidance…if the two can trust one another to make it work.  At the same time, Jack wants Grace to consider a Vegas residency, which would be financially lucrative but gives her the feeling she is being put out to pasture.  With Maggie feeling the pull to help David (and herself) advance but also feeling a loyalty to her employer, of which she is also a genuine fan, it creates tension between the two that threatens both their personal and professional relationship.

I could easily see first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson turning these situations into sudsy scrap or going in the other direction and creating developments with little basis in reality.  Thankfully, The High Note feels surprisingly grounded and while perhaps holding an outlook on the music industry that’s a bit on the Pollyanna side, still maintains a level degree of authenticity.  For example, a meeting between Grace and a pile of young music executives turns uncomfortable and tense when she’s attempts to assert herself and as she explains later to Maggie it’s not just her age or sex but her race that she has to consider when trying to keep her career going.  Greeson throws some unexpected curveballs late into the game and, for once, they don’t seem like moments designed for a cheap reaction.

We’ll get to the leads in a minute but Ganatra has surrounded them with an interesting mix of faces, some more successful than others.  I especially liked Zoë Chao (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as Maggie’s wry roommate and could have actually used one or two more scenes with her and for my money you can never have enough Bill Pullman (A League of Their Own) in your film.  When he shows up for his brief appearance as Maggie’s dad, you sort of just happily sigh “Of course he’s her dad…of course he is.”  There’s a nice little cameo from Eddie Izzard as a rock star Maggie hatches a plot with and an underused June Diane Raphael (Girl Most Likely) as another one of Grace’s assistants.  I have to think Raphael’s part was trimmed down in editing because she’s so valuable that to have her in such a nothing role is a waste.

The film lives (thrives, even) on its two leads, with Johnson and Ross playing well together and individually.  Once mocked for her time in the Fifty Shades of Grey films, Johnson has proven her naysayers wrong by consistently showing up in interesting roles in intriguing films.  While Maggie could have been just another wannabe producer with stars in her eyes and a dream in her heart, Johnson goes the extra mile in making her smart, determined, likable, and willing to work for her passion as well.  In a performance that I’m sure would make her legendary Motown singer mother proud, Ross shines as Grace and sings quite well, too.  Though it sounds a liiiiiiitle overly autotuned there’s a bounce to her voice that matches her personality.  The script has a way of ping-ponging Grace’s personality a little too much at times which creates some dizzyiness on the part of the viewer but Ross is so totally engaging that you won’t notice those nitpicks until far later.

With a handful of well-sung songs performed by the actors and a zippy soundtrack to cover the rest, The High Note should have had a shot at a theatrical run because I’m betting it would have found a small but respectable audience.  I also think it would have gone a long way in laying the groundwork for Ross to get some notice as more than just a television actress because she shows here she can handle carrying the duties of a leading lady.  In a perfect world, I’d love to see her name stay in the conversation when the Oscars get talked about…while the movie may not be perfectly pitched her performance is what Best Supporting Actress nominations were made for.

Movie Review ~ Long Shot


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An unemployed journalist battered by his own misfortune endeavors to pursue his childhood crush and babysitter, who now happens to be one of the most powerful and unattainable women on the planet.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Alexander Skarsgård, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park

Director: Jonathan Levine

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Don’t look now, but we may actually be in a small scale renaissance of the mid-range romantic comedy. There were rumblings that it was coming back when last year’s Crazy Rich Asians made a splash, only to be followed by the popular streaming releases like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Set Up. So far this year, we’ve had the modest hit Isn’t it Romantic and soon after Long Shot’s May release there’s still The Sun is Also a Star to look forward to and Last Christmas for the holidays…plus several more Netflix offerings along the way. It’s not a full scale rebirth of the genre but it definitely gets a healthy dose of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation courtesy of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot.

Originally conceived as more low-brow comedy titled Flarsky, the script from Dan Sterling attracted the attention of Seth Rogen after it got good buzz on The Blacklist, the infamous Hollywood insider-y annual survey of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Rogen brought in screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post) who gave the film a good polish, making the starring female role more of real person and creating more equality between the lead protagonists. With a new title and Rogen’s friend Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) in the director’s seat all they needed was a star. And boy did they get one.

Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the real reason you should be buying a ticket to see Long Shot and is the film’s not-so-secret weapon. Sure, you may be a fan of Rogen, romantic comedies, or just need a solid two hour film that is worth your time but Theron is by far the main selling point Long Shot has to offer. Already adept at playing any genre she’s thrown into, Theron dives headfirst into a role that requires the actress to convince us her gorgeous buttoned-up Secretary of State could fall for Rogen’s lumpy (but lovable) political journalist, all while keeping her composure as she plots out an environmental treaty to lay the groundwork for her presidential run.

Recently fired from his grassroots publication, Fred Flarsky (Rogen, This is the End) is drowning his sorrows with his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton) at an upscale benefit when he runs into his old babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron). Flarsky may have written a few popular pieces on the internet but Field has done considerably better for herself; she’s the youngest Secretary of State under a dim bulb President (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) who was elected after playing the Commander in Chief on TV for years. When the President decides not to run again and offers to endorse Field, she gets early reports (from a too-brief cameo by Lisa Kudrow, Friends with Kids) that the public doesn’t think she has a sense of humor. Running into Flarsky and reading his material gives her an idea: why not hire this guy who knew her back in the day and see if he can punch up her image?

For Field, this starts as a business proposition. For Flarsky, this is a chance to get closer to a girl he has had a crush on since he was a pre-teen. Even more than that, he believes in her as a politician and gets behind her as a potential presidential nominee. As they make their way around the globe gathering support for her environmental protection plan, the two get closer…much to the horror of her staff members (June Diane Raphael, Girl Most Likely and Ravi Patel, Master of None) until they become an unlikely item.

It really is on Theron to sell us on her character falling for Fred and Rogen and Levine help her get there (with no small assistance from Hannah’s script) by keeping Charlotte aware of their differences but following her heart anyway. That’s what makes it all work because, unlike other Rogen vehicles where he’s paired with beauties just…because, here he initially winds up with the girl by winning over her brain first before anything physical happens.

Clocking in a tad over two hours, the movie comes in just a hair too long and a wiser editor could have excised more of Jackson’s unnecessary scenes as Fred’s friend that don’t wind up informing the action on anything we don’t already know. As good as Raphael and Patel are, they only work in small doses and their business could be trimmed as well because we really want more time with Theron and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rogen.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Serkis (Black Panther) popping up in a truly bizarre role as a publishing magnate with ties to Charlotte and Fred.  It’s not that the role is bizarre, it’s that Serkis is under heavy layers of make-up to render him unrecognizable.  Why?

The film almost makes it across the finish line without resorting to gross out gags but can’t resist a fairly atrocious bit of toilet humor that cheapens things up at the wrong time. Honestly, I get why they inserted it in the grand scheme of things but it sinks the film to a different level that I thought it was rising above.  Still, that and a rather perfunctory ending can’t erase the fun of the previous 100 or so minutes and any movie that prominently features Roxette’s mega-anthem “It Must Have Been Love” on more than one occasion already scores high in my book.