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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Come Play

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A monster targets a non-verbal autistic boy along with his family and friends by manifesting through their smart phones, computers, and other electronic devices.

Stars: John Gallagher Jr., Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, Rachel Wilson, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, Eboni Booth, Alana-Ashley Marques

Director: Jacob Chase

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Too often, it feels like we think of horror on a grander scale than it has to be.  Why must everything be catered to the masses or to what a certain demographic wants to see on the big screen?  Sometimes it’s nice to push play on a scary movie that feels like it was targeted for a particular group of viewers, maybe not even your own, but at least you come away with the impression the filmmaker(s) knows their audience they’re seeking screams from.  The best place to find examples of this is in horror shorts that pop up on festival circuits, carefully curated bite-sized morsels that are compact in size but jam-packed with tension.

In recent years, a number of these shorts that were so well received at global festivals have caught the eye of studios looking for projects that aren’t going to cost them an arm and a leg to produce.  After all, horror is the genre that regularly pays for itself in the opening weekend box office receipts so why not pick a young talent out of the crowd, give them their big break, and maybe make a little money out of the deal in the end?  That’s how we came to get 2013’s Mama from director Andy Muschietti who would go on to direct the 2017 blockbuster remake of IT and it’s less-successful 2019 sequel.  It’s also how David F. Sandberg expanded his 2013 freaky short Lights Out into a full-length 2016 film and parlayed that into directing gigs on the well-received Annabelle: Creation and hit superhero movie Shazam!.

Before Come Play crossed my desk, I’d never heard of Larry, the 2017 five-minute short from writer/director Jacob Chase that he expanded into this new film released from Focus Features and Amblin Partners. (You can watch it below)  Knowing that a number of these short film inspirations would recreate or gently rework their original scenes in their longer film, I deliberately kept away from watching the short film until after and I’m glad I did.  The short film is all about scares (and good ones, too) while Chase has struggled with the expansion of his idea, showing that not all shorts can make the leap to long-form and consistently maintain what made them so special to begin with.  Admittedly, Come Play has its moments to admire and maintains a slick shine of a filmmaker with promise, but it’s lost a valuable simplicity of design in favor of efficiency of storytelling.

Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson, Marriage Story) is a non-verbal autistic who communicates chiefly through an app on his phone that speaks his words for him.  This has created an attachment to the electronic device that is both regrettable and necessary at the same time.  His deep dependency on his technology has even distracted him from the situation developing in his own home because his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, Life of the Party) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr., Underwater) are in the middle of a separation.  She’s frustrated from always being the enforcer of rules and watching Marty sweep in to be the “good” parent; he doesn’t want to say it, but deep down hasn’t fully accepted his son’s diagnosis.

Late at night, Oliver’s phone suddenly displays a new program, a story he can swipe through about an unhappy monster named Larry who has no friends.  Curious to Larry’s tale of woe and feeling a sense of kinship to the friendless outsider, Oliver progresses through the e-book and the further he goes, the more strange things begin to happen around him.  Lights flicker, objects move, a Snapchat filter picks up more than just Oliver’s face as he stands next to a dark closet…all leading to a fateful sleepover between Oliver and several kids from his class that normally bully him.  The four boys also read the book to terrifying and lasting consequences.

Up until this point, Chase has built up a nice amount of suspense as Oliver is essentially stranded alone to face whatever evil entity Larry is.  His dad has moved out and his mom doesn’t understand his fears, pushing him to socialize more for her benefit than his.  Chase introduces some interesting dynamic between this mother-son relationship but never truly cracks the code, and sadly that’s mostly the fault of Jacobs who is completely miscast as Oliver’s overstressed mother.  Her line readings are so bad and insincere you almost wonder if she was trying to make her character sarcastic and Chase or his editor cut the film incorrectly to make her look bad.  It’s a performance that has a large impact in breaking the film in two, with Jacobs on one side and the rest of the cast on the other.

The more we learn about Larry the less the creature manifesting in front of us begins to make sense or follow whatever rules Chase has designed…if any are given at all.  One moment he has set his sights on Oliver and the next, he’s after Marty at his nighttime job as a parking lot attendant.  There are two scenes set here and they’re arguably the ones that will give you best case of the shivers…so it’s no coincidence the original short film was the inspiration for these passages.  Strange, then, that Chase didn’t include the best scare from that short in his feature…because it was a doozy.  You would think he’d at least include that.

There are some good things to report, though.  Child actors can be the absolute worst but Chase lucked out with not one but four good kids cast in roles.  I cannot imagine how impenetrable that sleepover scene would have been if those kids had been impossible to watch, but they play the dialogue and rising fear so well without becoming obnoxious that you have to applaud their performances.  The scares are decent too, with a number of shocks that don’t come with loud music stings or unknown haunters jumping out at you – it’s often what you aren’t seeing or just the suggestion of a presence that sends you sliding down in your seat.  As much as I disliked Jacobs, she’s part of a visual near the end that is truly nightmare-inducing.

The good news bad news here is that Come Play is overall a fine film and that’s why I’m rating it higher than you might think after reading the review.  It stumbles a bit during its last act and doesn’t have a finale that feels fully explored but Chase has crafted a well-made, technically sound film if you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture.  I missed a simpler brand of storytelling in favor of a deeper complexity with a “message” that made it more than it needed to be, but for the audience it is aiming to please I think it mostly makes it up the hill it chugs up for 90-some odd minutes.  There’s definitely a spark in Chase that studios should explore and for a Halloween option new release, Come Play might be worth inviting your friends over for.

 

The original short film, Larry, from director Jacob Chase.