Autumn Road


Stop hearse-ing around.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lorelei Linklater, Riley Cusick, Justin Meeks, Lar Park-Lincoln, George Welder, Maddy-Lea Hendrix, Ranger Lerway, Jonas Lerway, Jordan Wright, Kerry McCormick, Buddy Love, Maya Alexander, Sydney Aucerman, Matt Williams, Kenneth Fisher, Christian Baker, Rick Jezak, Gideon Bing, Damien Bannister, Madison Pine. Directed by Riley Cusick

 

One of the things many of us look forward to about October is the haunted house attraction. Walking through a maze of corridors, looking at scenes of disturbing violence (or the results of same), having actors leap out from dark corners to scare the bejeezus out of us, and the horrific (or sexy) costumes, not only of the staff but also of those in line to go through. It’s a familiar rite of autumn.

Twins Vincent (J. Lerway) and Charlie (R. Lerway) are the teenage sons of a man (Meeks) who has for years run such an attraction in a small Texas town. They are friends with Winnie (Hendrix), who has a crush on the shy and retiring Charlie. In turn the creepy and impulsive control-challenged Vincent likes Winnie but when it’s time to go trick-or-treating, Charlie bows out, remaining in the prop hearse in the front of the haunted house while Winnie and Vincent walk the town. Afterwards, Winnie goes into the hearse to chat with Charlie, and is never seen again. Did Charlie murder the girl, or did Vincent do it in a fit of jealous rage? I’m not telling.

Years later, Winnie’s little sister Laura (Linklater) returns to town after an abortive attempt to become an actress in Los Angeles is capped off with an unexpected and ghoulish tragedy. She’s not particularly eager to visit her mom (Lincoln), who fell apart after Winnie’s disappearance. At the local diner, she runs into Charlie and like her sister before her, takes a liking to the shy young man (Cusick), while feeling a little nervous about the still-creepy Vincent (also Cusick) who from time to time assaults patrons of the haunted house he and Charlie inherited. Her appearance triggers Vincent and Charlie, who have a secret to protect. But is it the secret you might think it is?

One has to admire the gumption of Cusick who not only wrote and directed the movie, but also starred in two critical roles. That’s a lot to take on – maybe too much, for the movie lacks a whole lot of focus, which had Cusick been less torn with all of the different roles he had to play for the film, he might have been able to see the movie with a bit more objectivity and correct some very basic problems.

One of the most glaring is the pacing. The movie is an hour and a half long, but feels much longer. Things take a very long time to develop and by the time we get to the climax, it’s more of a relief that you might feel after arriving at a service station after walking several miles to get there when your car breaks down. That’s not the feeling any director wants his audience to come away from his film with.

That’s not to say that the film is without merit. One place that Cusick does excel in is creating an evocative tone. Also worth noting is that there are some effective shocks, one taking place about 22 minutes in that will absolutely take your breath away. There are a lot of plot points that you never see coming, and that can be a good thing.

But there are also some plot points that are nonsensical, and some inconsistencies (like an employee of the haunted house who quits very forcefully and yet is back the next day without any sort of comment) and some characters whose behavior doesn’t make sense. Cusick the writer and Cusick the director could both do with a more judicious editor.

REASONS TO SEE: There is some genuine creepiness and some fairly shocking violence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is waaaaaaaaay ssssslllloooowwwwww.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, profanity and scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Linklater is the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Fest
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Infinite

Programming Note


Normally on Thursdays we run our New Releases feature for the coming weekend. Given that basically there aren’t any this week, and since I’m down with the flu anyway, there won’t be a New Releases for the week of December 31. The feature will return next Thursday for the week of January 7th. Hopefully I’ll be over the flu by then! Until then, Happy New Year to all the Cinema365 readers!

Wonder Park


Welcome to Jurassic – I mean, Wonder – Park.

(2019) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Ken Hudson Campbell, Kenan Thompson, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, Matthew Broderick, Sofia Mali, Oev Michael Urbas, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Kevin Chamberlin, Kath Soucie. Directed by Dylan Brown, Clare Kilner, Robert Iscove and David Feiss

A nice concept is torpedoed by weak execution in this troubled production that comes to us via Paramount’s subsidy Nickelodeon Films. June (Denski) is a wildly creative and smart 10-year-old who for years has along with her mother (Garner) worked on creating a fantastic theme park with improbable rides and stuffed animals come to life running the place. Then, mom gets a serious illness and has to go away for treatment, while Dad (Broderick) ships her off to math camp. Worried that her Dad won’t be able to fend for himself, June runs away from camp and finds in the surrounding woods an overgrown, derelict version of the park she and her mom created. The animals – now life-sized and able to talk – are trying to fend off a horde of zombie stuffed animal monkeys and a mysterious storm that threatens to destroy the park completely. June will need to find a way to prevent that.

The design of the park, with delightful Rube Goldberg-esque rides, is actually mesmerizing and the bright colors make for some serious eye candy. Unfortunately, the attempts to bring in serious subjects – in particular dealing with the potential loss of a parent – aren’t handled very well and end up being disconnected with the issues facing the park. Add to this one-dimensional characters who aren’t given a whole lot to do and you end up with a truly disappointing kid’s film that could have been so much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The design of the park itself is splendiferous.
REASONS TO AVOID: A cliché plot with no memorable characters to rescue it.
FAMILY VALUES There are some mild thematic elements that might be too much for the smaller set.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brown was removed as director following accusations of sexual misconduct near the end of production. Although uncredited, Kilner, Iscove and Feiss oversaw the remainder of the production. None of the directors are given screen credit, something that the Directors Guild of America almost never allows.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Neverending Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Autumn Road

The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe


LuLaRoe retailer Sharon Tucker and her son Elijah examine some of their wares.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Rick Ross, Stephanie McNeal, Vivian Kaye, Elijah Tucker, Joy Saavedra, Christina Hinks, DeAnne Brady Stidham, Sharon Tucker, Meg Conley, Jean Marie, Amanda Montell, Mark Stidham, Vivian Kaye, Jill Domme, Wendi Rogers, CJ Sanders, Carla Hadfield, Heather Blithely, Brittany Hunter. Director Uncredited.

“Work hard to get ahead.” That’s the mantra we Americans have heard essentially all our lives; that the secret to a good life was putting our nose to the grindstone and working our tushies off. As that has been exposed to be a bill of goods that has no basis in the reality of the 21st century America, many have turned to adding income in order to make ends meet, let alone get ahead.

DeAnne Brady Stidham and her husband Mark founded LuLaRoe as a women’s clothing company in 2013 with their emphasis on what they described as “buttery soft” leggings with somewhat over-the-top prints and colors. Rather than selling through stores, they enlisted their own retailers – mostly white moms – who sold through social media, posting upbeat videos with the go-for-it attitude of a Jazzercize class.

This type of venture isn’t new. It’s called “Multi-Level Marketing” and has been used successfully by Tupperware, Avon and Mary Kay Cosmetics – all, again, mostly utilizing white moms. But there is an inherent danger in this kind of business and it has to do with recruiting. The more retailers that a product like LuLaRoe can entice, the more sales they make and the more profit. To encourage sales growth, they gave their retailers incentive to sign up new retailers by giving them a bonus for the orders put in by their recruits. This is essentially a pyramid scheme, and they are illegal.

The reason that they’re illegal is that the money flows upwards and those on the bottom of the pyramid generally are left having made a worthless investment while those at the top rake in the dough. The retailers began to notice that the once-high quality leggings began to deteriorate drastically in quality with ugly patterns and forming holes in them with only a single wearing. Retailers found themselves unable to sell the low-quality and increasingly unattractive leggings and were left with thousands of dollars in merchandise that they couldn’t sell. Many of them wound up deeply in debt and some found their relationships with family and friends strained or even broken.

This documentary, airing exclusively on Discovery Plus, examines the cult-like environment that the Stidhams created, using what one expert called “toxic positivity,” in which low sales would be blamed on poor attitudes, or too-small inventories. Top sellers were rewarded with Carnival Cruises or trips to Cancun. Authors and experts on cult behavior Rick Ross and Amanda Montell both detail how LuLaRoe’s environment is similar to that within a cult, while online activist Christina Hinks discuss the evils of Multi-Level Marketing.

This is definitely a cautionary tale, one that continues today – LuLaRoe continues its behavior, as they show in footage from their 2021 Cancun retreat – but it’s clear that this is meant to warn people about how easy promises of “full-time pay for part-time work” can be deceiving and lead to terrible consequences. That LuLaRoe preyed on women desperate for a sense of camaraderie is repulsive.

But keep in mind that while the subject matter is compelling, the format of the documentary is pretty standard and the story not particularly well-told. One can easily glean the same information from Stephanie McNeal’s original BuzzFeed article that detailed the tactics of LuLaRoe, or by the Amazon documentary mini-series LuLaRich which goes into greater depth, although requires more of a time commitment from the viewer. In any case, this is a non-essential documentary on a subject of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: A thorough look at an American scandal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Like many documentaries of this nature, relies on a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing, although kids may find this boring.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is essentially a documentary form of the BuzzFeed article by McNeal that exposed the Stidhams and their business practices.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gig Is Up
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder Park

Benedetta


Nobody can say that Benedetta ain’t getting nun.

(2021) Biographical Drama (IFC) Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphné Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Cheveliotte, Hervé Pierre, Clotilde Courau, David Clavel, Guillaine Londez, Gaëlle Jeantet, Justine Bachelet, Lauriane Riquet, Elena Plonka, Héloise Bresc, Jonathan Couzinié, Vinciane Millereau, Erwan Ribard, Sophie Breyer. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

Some movies test your intellect. Others test your emotional tolerance. Some test your endurance. Others test your beliefs. Some test your credulity, while some test your patience. The latest from celebrated Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for Soldier of Orange, Robocop, Total Recall and infamously, Showgirls, tests your permissiveness.

Benedetta Carlini (Efira) is a young woman, the daughter of a well-to-do Italian merchant (Clavel) in the city of Pescia in 17th century Tuscany. She is being delivered to the Theatine convent under the supervision of the Abbess Felicita (Rampling). Benedetta is a devout young woman who has visions of being a Bride of Christ – not just in the sense of being a nun, but an actual bride of actual Jesus, in every sense of the term.

She is given a new novice to mentor, Sister Bartolomea (Patakia), a peasant girl who is fleeing an abusive father who has taken to using her as a substitute wife following the death of her mother. Bartolomea is an earthy, uninhibited sort that Benedetta is immediately drawn to. As Benedetta begins showing signs of stigmata and her visions grow more vivid, the skeptical abbess is sure that her charge is trying to game the system for her own gain, while the local papal nuncio (Lambert) is using the girl’s growing notoriety for his own purposes. In the meantime, Benedetta is discovering her own sexuality and Bartolomea is only too happy to help her explore it.

There is a lot of sexual activity – a lot – even for a French film. A French film…about an Italian nun…directed by a Dutchman. Ah, the European Union! S’anyway, Verhoeven has a reputation for not being overly awed by boundaries, and has had no problem with extreme violence, kinky sex or disturbing imagery in any of his films and he delivers all three here. In some ways, it’s nearly as entertaining to read the reviews of the film. It’s amazing how prudish some critics are; you can feel the pearls being clutched in a death grip as some decry the amount of lesbian sex scenes in the movie. Keep in mind that the movie is based upon Judith C. Brown’s biography of Carlini Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.

The real Carlini was at one time one of the most powerful women in her order; later she was excoriated for her sexuality and her affair with Bartolomea, while other priests and male clergy routinely had mistresses despite their vow of chastity. The men were rarely persecuted for it but Benedetta certainly was, but refused to meekly accept the injustice. She was a feminist long before feminism was a thing.

But Verhoeven seems to be toning down that aspect of her story. Those who appreciate the proverbial “girl-on-girl action” will find plenty to keep them sated. However, some reviewers compare this film to porn – apparently they don’t get out on the Internet much. Highly sexual this may be, but porn this is not.

Efira has been coming on as a powerful actress over the last few years, and this performance does nothing to stem her momentum. She seems destined to become a huge star in Europe (she’s actually Belgian, not French) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood started reaching out to her agent sooner rather than later. She captures not only the devoutness of the character, but the harder edges as well – we are left to wonder if the stigmata is a divine manifestation, or the work of Benedetta’s own ambition – and she makes the character enigmatic enough to be interest, but real enough to be relatable.

Verhoeven does a marvelous job of setting the period, from the clothes to the sets to the historical accuracy – a plague was raging through Italy at the time this was going on, and Verhoeven doesn’t mind showing the horrors of that plague. As a bit of a counterpart, former Art of Noise keyboardist Anne Dudley – who has become a much-sought-after film composer – gives us a beautiful, haunting score.

Basically, if you’re offended by onscreen depictions of sex – particularly between two women – this is definitely not the movie for you. But don’t for a moment think that just because Verhoeven is generous with the nookie doesn’t mean that is all there is to the film. There is also commentary on religion, ennui and attitudes towards women in general and female sexuality in particular. This isn’t Verhoeven’s best work but it is up there, which considering the breadth of his career is really saying something.

REASONS TO SEE: Really captures the period. The score is gorgeous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prudish or sensitive might end up offended.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of nudity and sex, as well as some violence, profanity, disturbing images and material that might offend the devout.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the second French-language film for Verhoeven after Elle (2016).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philomena
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe

New Releases for the Week of December 24, 2021


THE KING’S MAN

(20th Century) Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson, Rhys Ifans, Djimon Hounsou, Gemma Arterton, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Charles Dance. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

With the world on the brink of a ruinous war, one man must take on a tyrant bent on world domination – and in doing so founds an agency of superspies that will protect the world against the threats of darkness for the next century.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide
(Opened Wednesday)
Rating: R (for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material)

83

(Annapurna) Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Pankaj Tripathy, Tahir Raj Bhasin. One man with unshakable belief led the Indian cricket team to a monumental upset victory and put the national team of India on the map, helping issue an era of dominance in the sport that continues to this day.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

A Journal for Jordan

(Columbia) Michael B. Jordan, Chanté Adams, Robert Wisdom, Jalon Christian. A young soldier deployed to Iraq keeps a journal full of love and wisdom for his infant son. Based on a true story, the movie is directed by Denzel Washington.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: War Drama
Now Playing: Wide
(Opens Saturday)
Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content, partial nudity, drug use and language)

American Underdog

(Lionsgate) Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid, Bruce McGill. Kurt Warner went from stocking shelves in a grocery store to a two-time MVP, Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame quarterback, taking an unlikely route to greatness.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: Wide
(Opens Saturday)
Rating: PG (for some language and thematic elements)

Being the Ricardos

(Amazon) Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda. Acclaimed writer/director Aaron Sorkin takes us behind the scenes during a fraught production week of the legendary sitcom I Love Lucy while examining the complicated professional and personal relationship between stars Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs
(opened Wednesday) (also on Amazon Prime)
Rating: R (for language)

Licorice Pizza

(United Artists) Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper. Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson looks at two young people growing up and falling in love in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Orlando, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language, sexual material and some drug use)

The Matrix Resurrections

(Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jada Pinkett Smith, Neil Patrick Harris. Plagued by strange memories – and unable to remember people important to him, Neo finds himself back in the Matrix, which has changed a great deal since we saw it last.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide
(Also on HBO Max) (Opened Wednesday)
Rating: R (for violence and some language)

Sing 2

(Universal) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Bono. Buster Moon and his gang of big dreamers with big singing voices take their act to the glittering stages of…well, not Las Vegas, but something very much like it.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide
(Opened Wednesday)
Rating: PG (for some rude material and mild peril/violence)

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

Beanie Mania (Thursday)
Don’t Look Up
Lulli
(Sunday)
The Scary of Sixty-First
The Super Bob Einstein Movie
(Tuesday)

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A Journal for Jordan
American Underdog
Beanie Mania
Being the Ricardos
Don’t Look Up
The King’s Man
Licorice Pizza
The Matrix Resurrections
The Super Bob Einstein Movie

The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses


American icons.

(2021) Documentary (Virgil) Robert Redford (voice), David Philipps, Stormy Mullins, Wylene Davis, Tom Hagwood, Mary Kitzmiller, Ann Souders, Pat Doak, Matt Manroe, Jimmy Welch, Ryan Beatele, Richard Durant, Brittany Johnson, Stella Trueblood, Neda DeMayo. Directed by Steven Latham and Conrad Stanley

 
An iconic image of the American west was the cowboy on his mustang, riding the range. But the mustangs aren’t native to the Americas; the Spanish conquistadors brought it with them. But as the century turned from the 19th to the 20th, the face of the American West changed. Farms and agriculture, towns and cities began to dominate the landscape as the open range became a thing of the past. Mustangs in the wild, no longer needed for transportation and work with the advent of the automobile, began to be used as dog food as they became nuisances to farmers. Their numbers dropped in the wild to under 10,000 by the 1950s.

That all changed with the advent of Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston, an ordinary secretary who while on the way to work one day saw the inhumane way wild horses were treated. Outraged at the sad mistreatment of an animal that symbolized America at its finest, she went on what started as a one-woman crusade to save the wild mustang. Her campaign gathered steam, supported in large part by America’s children. Eventually, the Bureau of Land Management set aside land for the mustangs to roam free and an agency was set up to manage them. The legacy of Wild Horse Annie is that the number of mustangs in the wild has grown to more than 80,000.

In fact, that’s where their modern troubles have begun. The land that the mustangs inhabit cannot sustain that many horses. Horses have no natural predators and left to their own devices their population will double roughly every four to five years. Several advocacy groups have been tackling this problem in different ways, from a group of women who travel the inhospitable range in Wyoming and Nevada to shoot darts into the mares. The darts contain a fertility inhibitor that keeps the mare from ovulating. This is the most cost-effective way to handle the problem at about $30 a dart. One of the other means of controlling the population is rounding up groups of horses and keeping them in a BLM enclosure, costing the taxpayers roughly $50K every year per horse.

Then there is the Extreme Mustang Makeover, in which 100 of the horses that have been rounded up are given to 100 horse trainers who are given 100 days to train the equines to get used to working with humans. We follow two of the trainers – Mary Kitzmiller and Brittany Johnson as they take the wild horses who are often fractious around humans and in the hundred day window not only get them used to a human presence but even make them partners. It is a competition, and the horses – all of them – are auctioned off to the highest bidder, win or lose.

One of the winning bidders was Operation Wild Horse, which is a ranch in Illinois that pairs veterans with PTSD with horses, helping the vets to regain a sense of purpose and worth. It is a moving segment, one which in addition to tackling the issue of wild horse overpopulation, also takes on at the same time the problems of vets returning home after serving in hellacious circumstances.

The movie is only an hour and a half long, but the pacing is maddeningly slow. Still, the viewer is treated to breathtaking cinematography of horses in the wild, running in herds and protecting their colts. This is a documentary which falls under the category “the same, but different” in that it articulates an issue that has ramifications on the survival of the species, utilizes gorgeous images to tug at the emotions of the viewers and talks about efforts underway to resolve the situation, but different in the sense that we’re not talking about dwindling population numbers so much as dwindling available resources. Horse lovers should glom onto this one sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO SEE: Some beautiful images of horses in the wild.
REASONS TO AVOID:T he pacing is a little too deliberate.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the producers for the film are Redford, Bruce Springsteen (who also contributes a song to the soundtrack), his wife Patti Scialfa Springsteen and songwriter Diane Warren, who wrote a song for the soundtrack.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Kino Now, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buck
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Benedetta

8-Bit Christmas


NPH: Home for the holidays.

(2021) Holiday Comedy (HBO Max) Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, Steve Zahn, June Diane Raphael, Bellaluna Resnick, Sophia Reid-Gantzert, Che Tafari, Santino Barnard, Max Malas, Brielle Rankins, Braelyn Rankins, Cyrus Arnold, Chandler Dean, Jacob Laval, Katia Smith, Tom Rooney, David Cross, Kathryn Greenwood, Louise Nicol, Erica Levene, David MacInnis, Monica Dottor. Directed by Michael Dowse

At this time of year, the airwaves – or to be more precise, the streaming services – are flooded with Christmas themed movies, the bulk of them rom-coms with nearly identical plots about how the magic of Christmas serves as a kind of love potion. There are so many of them this year that Cinema365 chose not to list any of them in the Coming Soon preview section. If you want to see one, you won’t have far to look and one is pretty much just like the others.

To be dead honest, making a good, original Christmas movie is truly hard. Walking the line between genuine sentiment and overwrought treacle is tricky at best, and most movies seem to fall off the line into a vat of maudlin faux emotion that leaves you feeling like you just binged on a big bag of Sugar Babies. Some movies, though, manage to avoid that fate. Is this one of them?

Jake Doyle (Harris) is a single dad taking his young daughter Lizzy (Resnick) to his childhood home for the holidays. There is some tension between the two; Lizzy wants a new cell phone for Christmas, but Jake isn’t keen on getting her one. When they get to grandmother’s house (having gone over the river and through the woods), they find nobody home. Jake finds his old Nintendo Entertainment System in his bedroom and invites Lizzy to play a few games with him. Lizzy is about as enthusiastic as you would imagine any modern kid would be to play a game system that is thirty years obsolete. Jake offers to tell her the story of how he met her mother….oh, not quite right…how he acquired his Nintendo.

Young Jake (Fegley) wants a Nintendo more than anything at Christmastime 1988. Only one kid in the neighborhood has one – spoiled rich kid Timmy Keane (Dean) who chooses ten kids from the horde gathered outside his home to come in and play…or, more to the point, watch HIM play. Jake and his friends Mikey Trotter (Tafari), twins Tammy and Teddy Hodges (the Rankins twins), uptight Evan (Barnard) and pathological liar Farmer (Malas) whom nobody really likes but who hangs around anyway, are all eager to get a Nintendo of their own and free themselves of the tyranny of Timmy. A tragic accident involving a Power Glove and the Keane family dog leads Timmy’s mom and dad to embark on a crusade to ban the gaming system, making Jake’s quest even more difficult.

\He tries to cajole his parents – John (Zahn) and Kathy (Raphael) to buy him one for Christmas but they’re not having it. Mom is extremely budget-minded, constantly looking for bargains no matter how they end up causing Jake all sorts of torture, like the girl’s boots she buys him to wear because they were on sale. Jake is also trying to avoid the school bully Josh Jagorski (Arnold) who takes particular delight in torturing Jake.

Every scheme that Jake comes up to get a Nintendo ends up in disaster and with the big day looming, Jake starts to become desperate. How far will Jake go to get his hands on a Nintendo? Will he find success or disappointment? Will his father and mother ever figure out how much this game system means to him? The answer might surprise you a bit.

Most who read the plot synopsis and have a fair amount of film knowledge might see distinct similarities in plot to the Bob Clark 1983 classic A Christmas Story, substituting only the era and the object of the main character’s desire – at least nobody is lecturing Jake that he’ll put an eye out with his Nintendo. However, his parents (particularly his dad) have their own preconceptions of the damage a Nintendo would do to their son. They were, perhaps, not far wrong.

The juvenile actors are actually okay for the most part; at least they aren’t wooden, or worse – act like they’re acting. The late 80s are captured fairly well, although there are a few details that are missing; why are no kids watching either Nickelodeon or MTV? Also the fashions and hair styles don’t scream the era. And yes, while the movie was shot in Toronto, it was supposed to be set in Chicago and to be quite honest, doesn’t have the feel of the Windy City, which is one of the things that made the films of John Hughes such a delight.

I hadn’t expected to like this much, particularly since the plot was seemingly so derivative but something very odd happened; the more I watched the movie, the more I got into it and the more I was captured by its spell. By the end of the movie, I was actually quite misty-eyed and that’s quite a feat when you consider how jaded I am about Christmas movies. This is one of the better ones to come down the pike in recent years and if you have a subscription to HBO Max and have a yen to watch a holiday film, this should be near the top of your list.

REASONS TO SEE: Harris and Zahn are welcome additions to any movie. Grows on you to the point where you might be misty-eyed by the end.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit been-there, done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: There is mild profanity, rude humor and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is written by veteran writer Kevin Jakubowski, based on his own debut novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Story
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses

The Novice


Practice makes perfect.

(2021) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Fuhrmann, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop, Jeni Ross, Nikki Duval, Eve Kanyo, Al Bernstein, Robert Ifedi, David Guthrie. Directed by Lauren Hadaway

 

There is a fine line between determination to attain a goal, and obsession. Determination is to be admired; it requires discipline and self-sacrifice. Obsession, though, is terrifying to behold; all logic and reason go out the window in a single-minded quest to achieve that goal, regardless of the cost.

Alex Dall (Fuhrmann) is a college freshman in an unnamed Northeastern university who is majoring in physics – which is not only not her best subject but it is, in fact, her worst. She is on a full ride scholarship, but she works like a demon, taking tests over and over (and sometimes, over) again in a  quest to be the very best. On apparent impulse, she signs up to try out for the novice rowing team.

Alex has absolutely no experience in rowing, nor does she have any in any sport at all. Her body is soft and non-muscular; this would seem to be a lark – except Alex is determined not only to make the novice team but also the varsity. Only two novices are selected by the easygoing Coach Pete (Cherry) to try out for the varsity; naturally gifted athlete Jamie Brill (Forsyth) and Alex.

There she is greeted by derisive and often profane criticisms, and overhears the praise given to Jamie, which inspires her to work harder. On the ERG (stationary rowing) machines, she takes the instructions given to her by Coach Pete – “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs” – as a kind of a mantra, working out often to the point of retching. She develops sores on her hands, ribs and thighs – some self-inflicted – from her workouts. Her work ethic impresses Head Coach Edwards (Drummond) but her manic attitude serves to turn off most of her fellow rowers, although Jamie and pretty teachers assistant Dani (fashion model turned actress Dilone) who try to figure out the complicated Alex, who perhaps doesn’t know herself what drives her, although later evidence proves that she does and it is revealed to the audience, although I won’t get into it here. But as Alex’s drive descends into mania, her body and mind begin to show dangerous signs of cracking.

First-time feature director Hadaway turns to the director’s chair after a fine career as a sound editor, and bases her debut on her own experiences as a collegiate rower, which lends a good deal of realism and authenticity to the film. There have been films about rowing before – Varsity Blues comes to mind – but few films on obsessive goal-seeking have reached the heights of this one.

Part of the reason is Fuhrmann, who turns in a performance that is already attracting attention. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing her up for major roles in important movies in the next couple of years; she absolutely dominates the screen and has some really nice chemistry with Forsyth. Cinematographer Todd Martin also does some innovative work here, although from time to time Hadaway tends to get a bit cutesy with her framing and camera effects, a sin that first-time directors often commit. When those things happen, we are drawn out of the story and aware that there is someone directing – and there’s no better way to kill a cinematic mood than that.

The Novice has already been nominated for five Independent Spirit awards and Fuhrmann has an outside shot at an Oscar nomination, although she’ll have an uphill battle to get one. This is one of those indie films that isn’t always a pleasure to watch – but when the end credits begin, you are left with the realization you have just watched a terrific movie. This is one you won’t want to miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Fuhrmann gives a career-establishing performance. The cinematography is innovative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to temptation to get too artsy, pulling us out of the story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won best American Narrative Feature at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
8-Bit Christmas

The Monkey King: Reborn


A pig, a monkey and a monster walk into a bar…

(2021) Animated Feature (Well Go USA) Starring the voices of Bian Jiang, Cai Haiting, Su Shangqing, Lin Qiang, Zhang He, Zhang Lei, Qiang Lin, Wang Chenguang, Song Ming, Feng Sheng, Zhang Yaohan, Bai Xuecen, Qiu Qiu, He Zhang, Zhongyang Baomu, Tu-Te-Ha-Meng. Directed by Yunfei Wang

 

One of the iconic characters in Chinese folklore is that of the Monkey King, a.k.a. Sun Wukong (Jiang). Best-known for his appearance in the 16th century novel Journey to the West (although the character is based on an amalgam of far older myths and legends), he is a trickster prone to quick anger and powerful. Taking offense easily, he is a disciple of the Taoist monk Tang Sanzang (Shangqing).

While on a journey, Sanzang, and Wukong along with the Monkey King’s fellow disciples the pig-like Zhu Baije (He) and the monstrous Sha Wujing (Qiang) come to a shrine where the magic Tree of Life is tended to. The perpetually hungry Baije prevails upon Wukong to steal some fruit from the tree, which he does. The obnoxious caretakers not only blame Wukong for his theft, but also for the theft of fruit which the caretakers themselves stole. This sends Wukong into a mindless rage and in his fury, he destroys the tree.

That proves to be a really bad idea. The tree was the seal keeping the Demon King Yuandi (Lei) imprisoned. Freed, he kidnaps the pious Sanzang and will in three days regain his full power, at which time he will destroy the monk. Wukong, recognizing his complicity in the matter, goes on a quest to rescue his mentor, aided by his two fellow disciples and Fruity (Haiting), a cute-as-a-button gi spirit that sprang up out of the tree and which Wukong initially mistook for a fruit spirit. But the way is long and dangerous, and the foes powerful, particularly the Demon King who even the powerful Wukong may not be able to defeat.

While the movie utilizes elements of the 100 chapter-long Journey to the West, this is a fresh take on the subject, although how fresh can it be considering that in Asia there are over seventeen thousand versions of the Monkey King’s story (which is about how many MCU movies there are, right?). The story is a pretty simple one, although Western audiences might find the Buddhist and Taoist philosophies espoused in the movie to be different and refreshing.

The animation is the star here, with some absolutely beautiful landscapes and a good deal of detail which is lovingly rendered. The battle sequences are absolutely spectacular, particularly the climactic battle between the Demon King and Wukong. Animation fans, particularly those of Asian animation, are going to love this.

Cinema buffs looking for something refined will probably not love this quite as much. The plot is simplistic and the dialogue often redundant. Those with minimal knowledge of the Monkey King’s background will probably find themselves somewhat lost, although children may well not find that to be much of a problem. However, parents should be warned that the fight scenes can be brutal and bloody, and there is a lot of swearing (Wukong is often referred to as “that shitty monkey” by various characters throughout the film) and although it’s not implicitly stated, the film really isn’t appropriate for younger children. It seems to be aimed more at teens and adults, although the made-to-be-a-mascot Fruity seems to be there to appeal to younger audiences. While it might feel like they didn’t have a handle on what kind of audience they were directing the film towards, one has to allow for the cultural differences as way of explanation.

This is a gorgeous film to look at, but the paper-thin plot and sometimes unnecessary dialogue might put some off. My advice is just to watch it and get into the moment, rather than think about things too hard. It’s a movie meant to be experienced rather than analyzed.

By-the-by, the movie is available in two forms – subtitled, and dubbed into English. I saw the subtitled version and the vocal performances are a bit over-the-top, as they tend to be in that part of the world; if you have a preference, be sure that the version you are getting is the one you want. Most of the streaming services carry only the dubbed version.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is lush and richly detailed.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too childish for adults and too extreme for kids.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the third in a series of animated features released by Well Go and based on Chinese folk tales and myths under the umbrella Fengshen Cinematic Universe. This film is unrelated to the first two, Ne Zha (2019) and Jiang Ziya (2020).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Monkey King: Hero is Back
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Novice