Movie Review ~ Last Christmas


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Kate, a cynical Christmas store worker who has been continuously unlucky, keeps running into an overly cheerful man and begins to fall for him, her life takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Rebecca Root

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few months back, the Hallmark Channel announced it had smashed their own record for original seasonal films by offering up a whopping 40 holiday movies that would arrive between October and December.  Now, I’m not above spending a day (or two, or three) in front of the television partaking in their programming while wrapping presents or trimming the tree because they tend to be films that don’t require a ton of commitment.  There’s a specific guidebook to the way these little larks are crafted where you know going in that the woman who moves back to her hometown to (insert save family business or refurbish inherited money pit) and falls for the local (insert widower, handyman, or widowed handyman) will wind up happy and fulfilled.  I got a similar feeling of familiarity while watching Last Christmas but the difference here was that I couldn’t watch this one in my pajamas.

What’s surprising about Last Christmas is just how many talented individuals are involved with what is a fairly standard-fare offering from a major studio.  Inspired by and taking its name from the 1984 song from Wham! written by George Michael (when was the last time you saw a movie credited to a song?), the film was developed by Emma Thompson and her husband Greg Wise, with Thompson going on to write the screenplay with performance artist Bryony Kimmings. While it’s exactly the type of mid-budget romantic comedy I’ve often bemoaned the lack of in theaters, it’s often decidedly slight but makes up for that with strong, quirky performances that commit fully to the material that doesn’t always rise to meet them in the middle.  Thompson and Kimmings have a knack with introducing a few out of left field characters and ideas but just as soon as they’re established they drop them for something different.

Working as an elf at a Christmas store in London’s Covent Garden selling tacky ornaments, Kate (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) couch hops amongst her friends instead of living at home with her immigrant parents (Thompson, Late Night and Boris Isakovic).  Wearing out her welcome quickly because she tends to act like a human wrecking ball, she has dreams of becoming a musical theater performer but only half-heartedly purses it.  She’s more into late nights and a free wheeling attitude, though this being a PG-13 film the worst we see Kate is with tousled hair and streaked eyeliner.  After a health scare a year ago, her family and boss (Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians) urge her to be kinder to herself but it doesn’t deter Kate from continuing with an unhealthy lifestyle.

That all changes when she spots Tom (Henry Golding, A Simple Favor) outside the shop and strikes up a conversation with him.  A man almost too happy-go-lucky but with an air of mystery about him, Kate’s intrigued by Tom but can’t quite put her finger on why.  As they get to know each other better, he inspires her in small ways to treat herself with a little more consideration, which leads to Kate finding new passions she can focus on.  Several subplots emerge, though none are truly fleshed out by director Paul Feig (Spy) and that’s a disappointment because it feels there are ample opportunities to give a few of the minor characters more of a boost.  In the past, Feig has excelled with making stars of of supporting players and while the cast is an appealing mix of different looks, they aren’t fully tapped to step into the spotlight.  Instead, too many machinations are put into place in order for Thompson and Kimmings to get to a pivotal turning point in the movie that some will see coming from a mile away.  I get why that wrinkle is there but it’s such a minor point you can almost see where the filmmakers tried to parse it down and switch the attention elsewhere after the movie was shot — maybe I’m off base but it sure seems like they did.

Though popular from her time on Game of Thrones, I’m still not quite on the Clarke train yet, but Last Christmas helped get me closer to buying a ticket.  She’s a bit more grounded here than her last romantic outing (Me Before You) and you can see the change her character goes through from the start of the movie to the end.  Plus, she shows off a sweet singing voice chirping through a few George Michael tunes (the singer’s music is used almost exclusively throughout) and acquitting herself nicely doing so.  Golding continues to charm, even if his character is a bit of an enigma most of the time.  Thompson gave herself a nice role as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother still worried the KGB is looking for her and Yeoh is a lot of fun as Kate’s spiky boss.  Her strangely funny romance with a German man is so odd and inconsequential to the movie as a whole, I was surprised it made the final cut even if it was fairly amusing.

This is making it sound like Last Christmas is a tough movie to sit through and it’s not – it’s more enjoyable than I’m making it out to be.  While watching the movie, I was quite taken by it’s brisk pace and ability to bounce forward without getting too tangled in plot developments that would drag other similar movies down.  The script eliminates the usual entanglements often present in romantic comedies and clears the way for Kate to be center stage.  It helps that Clarke is at her most likable and that she’s not such a disaster we don’t want to see her pick herself up and succeed.  It’s a very timely movie as well, with newsworthy discussions of Brexit of all things coming into play (albeit briefly) and using that as another way for Kate to connect not just with her family but with other people in her city.  It’s a bit shoehorned in and a rather obvious statement moment, but it’s valuable nonetheless.  The only thing that truly bothered me is that Feig didn’t know how the end the movie.  There’s at least one scene too many at the end, maybe two depending on how tidy you like your edges when a movie wraps up.

Like those schmaltzy Hallmark movies, Last Christmas is arriving well ahead of the Christmas rush in order to beat the crowded boon of films vying for your attention as we head into a busy December.  It’s a smart move because there’s not a whole lot else like it out there right now.  At times it gets to feel like it’s moving through a checklist of people and situations required to be in these movies but somehow I went along with it without much fuss.  I recognize the movie can often be like one of those gaudy ornaments Kate is selling (and of which I own a few of).  You know it’s not the greatest, the prettiest, or the most expensive but you still like to look at it for what it means to you.  You’ll definitely put it on your tree…but maybe it will go closer to the bottom or toward the back.  I don’t think it’s destined to be a new Christmas classic but neither are any of those Hallmark movies that come out every year.

The Silver Bullet ~ Last Christmas



Synopsis
: A young woman, who has been continuously unlucky, accepts a job as a department store elf during the holidays. When Kate meets Tom on the job, her life takes a turn.

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Thoughts: There are certainly many reasons why Last Christmas checks off a number of boxes on my list.  There’s its holiday theme, its London setting, the involvement of director Paul Feig (Spy), not to mention it’s written by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (Late Night) who also has a co-starring role.  Feig’s casting of his A Simple Favor star Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) is a nice bonus and I’ll never turn my nose up at a movie that proudly touts that it is “featuring the music of George Michael”.  However…I’m not totally sold on it…at least not yet.  Why?  I’m just not on the Emilia Clarke train yet.  Though she’s gained a lot of press for her work on Game of Thrones as well as nabbed starring roles in Me Before You, Terminator: Genisys, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, I’ve yet to be convinced she’s the next big thing.  Perhaps this will be the holiday romance to convince me.

Movie Review ~ Crazy Rich Asians

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: This contemporary romantic comedy, based on a global bestseller, follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family.

Stars: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Lisa Lu, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remi Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Ken Jeong

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So here we are in the final weeks of summer. The kids are getting ready to go back to school and adults (at least this one!) are breathing a sigh of relief.  As far of summer movies go, over the course of the last few months we’ve had some highs (Avengers: Infinity War), some lows (Book Club), and some downright stinkers (Breaking In). If you asked me a few weeks ago what would be the best film of the summer my vote would have been Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I mean, that Tom Cruise vehicle was a real corker, firing on all cylinders and delivering a massive jolt of adrenaline…a perfect formula for a memorable summer blockbuster.

Well, right before the summer season finish line we have a late breaking champion that swooped in and stole the Best Of prize from Cruise and company. Yep, Crazy Rich Asians is, for me, the best film of the summer and the one I think you’ll have a lot of fun at. It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a movie this fresh and satisfying, a romantic comedy that’s effervescent but not operating twelve feet in the air. It’s a grounded, well-made film that’s exuberantly fun and endlessly charming.

Though I failed to make it through Kevin Kwan’s bestseller (the first in a trilogy) before seeing the movie, I knew enough to see that Crazy Rich Asians stays respectful to its source material. Readers will remember the zinger of an opener set in the past that leads directly into the present where we meet economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, Sound of My Voice) and her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding, the upcoming A Simple Favor). Nick wants Rachel to accompany him to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to introduce her to his family. Though Rachel has met some of Nick’s friends already, meeting the family is a whole other ball of wax and it’s an invite she’s eager to accept.

It’s not until they are seated in a deluxe first class cabin on their international flight that Rachel starts to realize her boyfriend is a tad more well-off than he has led her to believe (remarking at how frugal he is, Rachel says “You even borrow my Netflix password.”). Turns out Nick Young’s family is well known throughout much of Asia and they haven’t even touched down in Singapore before nearly the entire country knows of their arrival. Over the next week of celebrations leading up to the wedding, Rachel will meet Nick’s tradition-minded mother (Michelle Yeoh, Morgan), his adoring grandmother (Lisa Lu, The Joy Luck Club), his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan, Transformers: The Last Knight), and a whole host of other relations both crazy and rich to varying degrees.

Much has been made that Crazy Rich Asians is the first studio film with an Asian cast set in the present day since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club and it’s a headline worth taking note of. Thankfully, the film doesn’t hang its hat just on this distinction but instead presents itself as a fully-formed, gorgeously made, romantic comedy that feels almost immediately like an instant classic. The characters are broad but relatable…even if you’ll likely be drooling at the kind of opulent lives they lead. The comedic entanglements from screenwriters Peter Chiarelli (Now You See Me 2) and Adele Lim are familiar but delivered with a zest that clears away any stale smell of retreading clichés, and the message about tradition/home/family feels exceedingly timely.

Director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) has fashioned a handsome looking film that feels like every single dollar was put up on screen. With no huge names in the cast, the budget went intro production design and the movie benefits hugely from it. Not that the cast is bargain-rate by any means. Wu is a fantastically contemporary leading lady, a smart woman of today that doesn’t lose herself within the confines of visiting a culture very different from her own. Newcomer Golding is a real find (and the product of a lengthy casting search) and the chemistry he has with Wu and the other cast members is electric. Chan has an interesting arc as Nick’s sister in a difficult marriage and by the time her storyline wraps up expect some applause as she delivers a killer takedown. Yeoh has a fine line to tread between being too much of a villain when she’s not really a bad person and she expertly navigates this minefield with class and in countless glam gowns. Keep your eyes and ears open anytime Awkwafina is onscreen as she steals scenes even more than she did in Oceans Eight earlier this summer.

From it’s eye-popping displays of the lifestyles of the crazy, rich, and famous to its smart soundtrack featuring Asian remakes of pop songs, this is a movie that knows exactly what it is and who it’s for. Even better, this feels like it was made for one type of audience but winds up likely appealing to many more. If this does well we can hope not only for a sequel but for studios to wise up and greenlight more projects with casts that represent our world.

The Silver Bullet ~ Morgan

morgan

Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant has to decide and determine whether or not to terminate an artificial being’s life that was made in a laboratory environment.

Release Date: September 2, 2016

Thoughts: Though I feel like I’ve seen this overall plot before (as recently as 2015’s Ex Machina), Morgan has a lot of positives going for it. It wasn’t made for much but it looks nice and expensive, it has a cast blooming with both interesting actresses on the rise (Kate Mara, Iron Man 2, and Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch, and Rose Leslie, Honeymoon) as well as veteran character actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight; Paul Giamatti, San Andreas).  It’s also produced by Ridley Scott (The Martian)…but then again his son did direct it so I’m sure he’s wearing his producer hat while drinking out of his Best Dad Ever mug.  The last Scott offspring that directed a movie was Jordan and she gave us the underrated gem Cracks so here’s hoping an eye for unsettling films runs in the family.

Bond-ed for Life ~ Tomorrow Never Dies

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: James Bond heads to stop a media mogul’s plan to induce war between China and the UK in order to obtain exclusive global media coverage.

Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Götz Otto, Teri Hatcher, Judi Dench

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond in GoldenEye made a strong case that the James Bond series still had life left in its bones so was anyone really shocked when MGM fast tracked another entry in the franchise?  After taking a six year break before GoldenEye, the studio was eager to get their cash cow back up and running so Tomorrow Never Dies was moved into production on a fast clip.

Surprisingly, the film that resulted was a competent entry that didn’t have the look or feel of a movie that had little thought put into it.  In fact, when I revisited it again recently I was surprised that I liked it more now than I did when it was released in 1997.  Maybe coming off of GoldenEye I had too high expectations for the 18th (!) Bond film but I wasn’t a fan of the picture when I first saw it.

Time has been kind to Tomorrow Never Dies, especially considering that so much of it depends on media and technology that has been left in the dust by newer forms of communication and culture.  This adventure finds Bond squaring off against a mad media tycoon that happens to be married to an old flame of our spy.  Teaming up with a Chinese mercenary (Yeoh), Bond must avert war between the US and China as time hangs in the balance.

Though produced with the same breakneck speed of GoldenEye, it can’t quite match the previous entry with its plot that feels a little also-ran.  The same kind of evil genius is present, the same Bond babe works her magic on trying to soften him, the same second henchman lives long enough to battle 007 in a well-staged final battle…so it’s easy to feel like we’ve seen it all before and know where it’s heading.

That’s not to say the film isn’t an enjoyable ride with its top of the line production values and strong direction by Spoittswoode.  Spoittswoode stages some of the most impressively delirious action sequences seen so far in the series with Brosnan and Yeoh’s motorcycle chase through the city streets an unforgettable blast.

Yeoh’s martial arts strengths are also capitalized on without making it obvious that the stunts were designed with her in mind.  As the first ally to hold her own against Bond since Agent XXX in The Spy Who Loves Me, it’s no surprise that for a while a spin off series with Yeoh was considered.  As Bond’s previous lover, Hatcher is adequately sultry but I find it hard to believe she’d ever marry someone like the character Pryce plays.  I’ve always found Pryce to be overrated as a go-to actor and as a last minute replacement for Anthony Hopkins, he can’t help but be overshadowed by everything going on around him.

Returning credits designer Daniel Kleinman has produced another impressive opening sequence…though I think k.d. lang’s closing song should have swapped places with Sheryl Crow’s bland title track.  David Arnold comes on board as composer and works in some nice music cues that look to the future while making several nice references to the past.

Though it may feel a bit familiar, Tomorrow Never Dies functions well as a sophomore effort for Brosnan and company…producing an exciting film that provides the kind of entertainment audiences have come to expect from Mr. Bond.