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.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Joe Versus the Volcano

joe_versus_the_volcano

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a hypochondriac learns that he is dying, he accepts an offer to throw himself in a volcano at a tropical island, and along the way there, learns to truly live.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Dan Hedaya, Amanda Plummer, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Rated: PG

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Though Joe Versus the Volcano failed to ignite much spark with the box office or critics when it was initially released in 1990 the film has gained a nice following over the years who can appreciate the film and its oddball charm.  Before Tom Hanks (Splash, Cloud Atlas) and Meg Ryan hit it big with their second and third collaborations (Sleepless in Seattle in 1993 and You’ve Got Mail in 1998) they headlined this quirky comedy that played to both of their strengths.

Set up in the guise of a fairytale, the film opens with average Joe slumping through his dead end (literally) job and keeping to himself as he goes through the paces.  A hypochondriac, Joe’s visit to a doctor (delightfully played by deadpan Robert Stack) and subsequent terminal diagnosis will set him on a life changing mission that will take him into the middle of the ocean to a mysterious island.  Along the way he meets a kooky set of characters that will play a part in Joe learning lessons on living life to the fullest.

Hanks is pretty appealing as a pale sad sack that gradually looses/livens up.  You can see the color returning to his cheeks as he frees himself of his dreaded job, tells off the boss, romances a co-worker, and sets sail for adventure.  Demonstrating the same charm that would prove so valuable in later movies with Ryan, he’s affable and relatable.

An actress also just coming into her own at the time, Ryan deftly handles playing three roles (four, actually, for those eagle eared viewers) of women that Hanks meets on his journey.  The first is his mousy co-worker that loves him but can’t deal with his impending demise, the second is a flighty LA-type that’s not as shallow as she presents herself to be, and finally she’s the fiercely independent woman Joe’s meant to be with…if he didn’t have to jump into a volcano in a few days.

Good support is also to be had in Ossie Davis as a limo driver that shows Joe the finer ways of style as he prepares for his one-way trip, Dan Hedaya as Joe’s comically droll boss, and Lloyd Bridges as the man with the plan that coerces Joe to take a leap of faith.  It’s a well-cast affair and they all make material that could have gone awry work exceedingly well.

First time director John Patrick Shanley already had his Oscar for another modern day fairytale (Moonstruck) and his direction is done with the same light touch that’s applied to his script.  There’s a swell production design from Bo Welch, incorporating familiar points of interest from each stage of Joe’s journey.  The music by Georges Delerue is typically gorgeous…even if it’s essentially the exact same score he produced for Steel Magnolias a year before.

It’s easy to see why audiences and critics in 1990 turned their noses at the film which was probably a little ahead of its time.  It’s absolutely an offbeat romantic adventure that is catered to a specific group of viewers.  Those that are willing to take the journey and can let themselves be taken away by Shanley’s script and two strong lead performances will be rewarded greatly.