Movie Review ~ Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her father’s death, a cold-hearted woman named tries to sell her hometown’s land to a mall developer, ending the seasonal Christmas cheer in the town.

Stars: Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski, Jenifer Lewis, Treat Williams, Jeanine Mason, Josh Segarra, Mary Lane Haskell, Matthew Johnson, Selah Kimbro Jones

Director: Debbie Allen

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  For many people, Disneyland in California or Walt Disney World in Florida is the stuff that magical memories are made of and they aren’t wrong in reporting back that a visit there makes them feel like a kid again.  I’ve visited the Orlando location several times and returned home with a visible pep in my step so I speak from experience.  However, for the longest time my sights were set squarely on another mecca: country singer Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN.  It eluded me for decades but several years ago, on the drive back from a Memphis wedding, my partner and I booked a stay at Parton’s new DreamMore Resort which included a day pass right next door to the main event.  It was finally time.

Already stunned by the beauty of the majestic Great Smokey Mountains we saw from our bedroom in the impressive resort, I was probably always destined to shed a tear when entering the front gates.  Needless to say, I cried upon arrival and just allowed myself to take it all in throughout the day while walking through the pleasant as pie country amusement park.  From the entertainment (a number of which featured members of her extended family) to the rides (which seemed to be sized to only fit Dolly herself) to an entire section lovingly devoted to her memorabilia, this was absolutely everything I thought it would be and more.  I left the park even more of a fan of Parton’s than I already was…and by that time I’d already seen her several times in concert (once from the front row) so that’s saying something.

I take the time (and two paragraphs) to lay that groundwork for you to emphasize that the Netflix release of Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square was a big deal for me.  Big deal.  Aside from the Dolly Parton-ness of it all, this was a Christmas musical with 14 new songs written by Parton.  Sounds like a certified winner, right?  With Parton’s previous Netflix specials and movies faring well and her general tendency to drift toward material that suited her, it felt like an event that was timed right and ready to drop before Thanksgiving. Well, there’s good news and bad news for all of you that, like me, have been waiting for this one for some time.  Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.  The bad news is that this is a chintzy, flimsy, mawkish-ly earnest bit of holiday fruitcake that is overperformed and underdeveloped with not one ounce of subtlety to be found.  The good news is that for the majority of viewers, none of that will matter in the slightest.

Directed and choreographed by the legendary Debbie Allen in a big Atlanta soundstage decorated (think department store holiday display) to look like, what else, a town square, the film opens on Parton (Joyful Noise) dressed like a beggar singing about the meaning of Christmas and shaking a box asking for “Change”.  Never mind Parton’s boasting a full smokey-eye with eyelashes that could shovel snow and enough lipstick to lacquer a red wagon.  It all leads to a traditional introductory  opening number that Allen stages with full high-kicking, wide-armed, glee by a roster of townspeople that are 75% nubile bodied show dancers and 24% actors that move, with the final 1% consisting of a distracting middle-aged male ensemble member that appears to be having some kind of emotional crisis.  You’ve met everyone in the cast within the first five minutes and also know where the film is heading, too.  It’s not that different from any number of these holiday themed films but you can’t be faulted for expecting something with a little more creative energy than what Parton, Allen, and screenwriter Maria S. Schlatter cook-up.   Parton’s songs have people singing exactly what they’re feeling, almost down to core functions like walking, talking, and breathing.

The gist of it all is that mean ‘ole Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, gamely making her way through a character that feels like it was written by different people from scene to scene) has decided to sell off the tiny town named after her family for a tidy sum to a mall developer.  She’s swooped in to give everyone the news days before Christmas and a number of those that live and work on the square unsurprisingly balk at this last-minute yuletide bulletin.  The sassy hairdresser and former mayor Margeline (Jenifer Lewis, The Addams Family) is a long-time friend of Regina’s and can’t understand why she’s become so mean…and sings about it.  Former flame Carl (Treat Williams, Second Act) specializes in antiques and wishes that things with Regina had ended differently…and sings about it.  The young pastor (Josh Segarra, Trainwreck) and his wife (Mary Lane Haskell) are childless but draw strength from their faith and belief that there is a purpose for everything…and sing about it (a few times).  Local pub owner and widower Mack (Matthew Johnson) along with his daughter Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones, Hidden Figures) are facing a tough Christmas…and they sing about it, individually.  Then there’s Regina’s put-upon assistant Felicity (Jeanine Mason) who takes a lot of guff from her employer but manages to keep smiling, while singing and dancing, maybe it’s because there’s more to her than we are led to believe at first.

Popping in and out at key points is Parton who is undoubtedly the best thing about the 98-minute film.  Maybe it’s because she wrote the songs, maybe it’s because she’s just a natural at selling this kind of phony-baloney sort of schmaltz, but whenever she’s onscreen the movie takes on a glow that just isn’t present when she’s away.  It goes to show you the power of star quality and that magic “It” factor so many celebrities struggle with.  Parton has always had it effortlessly and it shows here, almost undeniably so.  Decked out in a number of beaded, fringed, bangled, and spangled white outfits (she’s an angel, by the way), her songs are spunky and fun and unlike some of the other actors she seems to truly believe in what she’s singing about.  Corny as it all may be, that unfettered sincerity goes a long way in improving what grows cold in the hands of others.

That’s evident in people like Segarra who is an unfortunate quasi-leading man.  As the town’s pastor, Segarra is the exact opposite in the sincerity department and could learn a thing or two from his composer and central star.  Though Haskell (a veteran of Parton projects according to her IMDb page) attempts to bring their relationship to a more realistic plane, Segarra wants to employ far too much pathos to a not that complex part and in doing so makes it, frankly, a bit creepy.  He also has a strange speech pattern that feels like he’s taking Schlatter’s dialogue and putting them into couplets – a perfunctory cherry on an all-around bizarre performance.  Williams is his usual dashing self and sings well, though his relationship with Baranski is not exactly deep.  If anything, it’s young Jones that steals things away from her older scene partners with her natural screen presence.  Though it’s one of the most inexplicable numbers in the film, her duet with Baranski was solid.

I’d almost watch the film again because in the larger numbers I found that I solely focused on the ensemble…but only because they are so uniformly distracting.  Never have I seen so many odd moments of pulling focus not just caught on film but kept throughout the editing process.  The one ensemble member I mentioned above you can actually tell they tried to cut away from at times but even then you can’t totally excise his peculiar reactions and wacko dancing.  In several scenes set in a church, keep your eyes on the children who are visibly bored and must have worked long hours.  Near the end, one of the young candle holders visibly yawns not once but twice…right around the time you’re probably doing the same thing. It doesn’t help Parton’s strangely tuneless songs have key ensemble members stepping out to deliver lyrics that are unequivocal jaw-droppers.  For example, when throwing out ideas how to keep Regina from selling the town, one female square dweller sings out with a big toothy smile “Strip her!”.  ‘Strip her’?  Like, naked?  Ok, then.  Don’t even get me started on the wince-inducing vogue-ing gay men that pop up to deliver all the zingers Lewis deemed too trite for even her to say.

So…with all of the negatives, why do I think none of this makes a heap of a difference?  The same reason why Hallmark and Lifetime keep churning out an endless supply of mediocre to poor holiday films each year, it’s not the quality that matters it’s the intent and Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square has it’s heart in the right place.  It’s absolutely not the movie I thought it would be and totally not close to the type of intelligent and stylish output I know the people involved are capable of…but I think it will provide some form of warmth to a large number of people during this strange holiday season that lies before us.  I’d be foolish to underestimate the power of Parton’s fanbase or not consider how starved audiences are right now for this sort of goofy distraction so while I personally found this to be not up to snuff when taking into consideration who was behind it all and rated it accordingly, I wouldn’t fault any of you for loving the ever-lovin’ heck out of it.  I’d still beg of you to watch Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey first because that film wound up being the sort of intelligent and heartfelt event I was hoping Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square would be.  There’s room for both films in your queue so watch them both and determine for yourself which speaks to you more.

Movie Review ~ Second Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A big box store worker reinvents her life and her life-story and shows Madison Avenue what street smarts can do.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens, Treat Williams, Milo Ventimiglia

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s a feeling you get while watching Second Act that you’ve been magically transported back to the early 2000s when movie studios were still making mid-range comedies that weren’t based on a comic book or an established franchise.  This was a time when a 30 million-dollar movie could get greenlit on star power alone and make its money back in the opening weekend before going on to enjoy a healthy life with repeat viewings on cable or well-worn DVDs.  Alas, this is 2018 and even if Second Act isn’t the same kind of slam-dunk destined for repeat viewings guilty pleasure we want it to be, it’s certainly a nice blast of nostalgia with several modern twists that keep it interesting.

When she misses out on a big promotion at her Wal-Mart-ish job she more than deserves that coincides with a milestone birthday, Maya (Jennifer Lopex, The Boy Next Door, radiant as ever) is feeling down in the dumps.  Though comforted by her best friend Joan (Leah Remini) and boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia, Kiss of the Damned) she can’t get over the fact that just because she doesn’t have a college degree it means she can’t advance in her career even if she has earned it.  Thanks to Joan’s whiz-kid son, with a little fancy internet tweaking and resume fudging Maya lands and interview and eventual consulting job with a beauty company in New York City.

I’m going to stop right there because that’s what the previews for Second Act have told you and it’s better if I let you see for yourself how the story develops.  Let it be known that Second Act isn’t exactly the movie it has marketed itself to be (sorry ladies, an early shirtless Ventimiglia scene is the closest you’re going to get to romantic territory) and that’s not entirely a bad thing.  You can see why Lopez, who scored so many early hits in the rom-com genre got the script for this and found it to be worthy of her time and producing effort.  It’s formulaic as all get-out but it works in ways that surprised me more than I thought it would.

Playing to its target audience by sending Maya on a Cinderella-esque story from rags to riches (with stops at all the major designer stores along the way) and putting her up in a swanky NYC apartment, the only thing screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas don’t give Maya is much of a personality.  Lopez sells the material well but Maya is often the passive viewer in her own life story, acquiescing to the wishes of others and not standing up for herself.  Case in point, though she has told him over and over again she wants to advance in her career Ventimiglia’s character keeps giving her a guilt trip about delaying starting a family — why doesn’t Maya ever say “No, dude, I don’t want to start a family…I’m 40 years old and want to be an executive!”  In all honesty, the entire Ventimiglia storyline could be excised without losing anything major…except for a small sampling of its female demographic.

Director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) doesn’t do anything special from a technical perspective but he gets the right people in the room and lets the charm of the collective hive carry the movie through some of the cheesier fare.  Aside from Lopez (who seems to change into one glorious costume/hairstyle every 30 seconds), Remini scores a win as Maya’s smart-acre sidekick (you can absolutely tell the two are besties in real life) and I got a kick out of Annaleigh Ashford (Frozen), Charlyne Yi (The Disaster Artist), and Alan Aisenberg as Maya’s coworkers who bring their own comedic oddities to their screen time.  Only Vanessa Hudgens (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as Maya’s corporate rival struggles to stay convincing, though Lopez tends to elevate her anytime they share a scene.

With so many movies out this holiday season, I’m guessing this isn’t going to make that big of a dent in the box office but will likely find a better audience when it’s available to watch at home.  It likely will play better on the smaller screen, too, and might have even made a bigger splash as, say, a Netflix original film.  Still, for those like me who mourn the death of these types of smaller genre films Second Act is a nice reminder that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Smooth Talk

SmoothTalk

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, this film chronicles 15-year-old Connie Wyatt’s sexual awakening in the Northern California suburbs.

Stars: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Levon Helm, Margaret Welsh, Elizabeth Berridge

Director: Joyce Chopra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 90’s I went through a period of really hating Laura Dern.  There was something about her gait, her delivery of a line, her bird-like features that really rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t take her seriously or sit through one of her films without feeling rumpled.  Then the strength of her work in recent years (including a remarkable performance in HBO’s just canceled Enlightened and memorable supporting roles in movies like The Master and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) made me change my mind, encouraging me to seek out some of her earlier work.  Now, I’m enraptured.

That’s how I happened upon Smooth Talk, a true hidden gem of a picture that kept me on the edge of my seat thanks to a star performance by Dern as a California teenager flirting with danger over the course of one hot summer.  Based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why.  With direction from Chopra and a Spartan script courtesy of Tom Cole what begins as a familiar look into teen angst in the mid 80’s turns into…well…I don’t want to spoil it for you.  The film is surprising in its turns but never feels like it’s exploiting our lead character or the audience as it unwinds its careful yarn that may remind you a bit of Little Red Riding Hood.

Dern is astonishing here, navigating some tricky material that couldn’t have been easy to play.  She’s supported well by Williams as a mysterious stranger that sets his sights on Dern and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill) as her mother that holds her to a different standard than her other daughter.  It’s an effective film for a lot of reasons, not the least is its look into a loss of innocence from multiple points of view.

This plays on television quite often so keep your eye out for this one – it’s rare to find a film so assured and unexpected.