The Favourite


Off with their heads!

(2018) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Carolyn Saint-Pé, Edward Aczel, John Locke, William Dalby, Anthony Dougall, Emma Delves, Faye Daveney, Jennifer White, LillyRose Stevens, Denise Mack, Everal Walsh, James Melville, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Liam Fleming, Jenny Rainsford.  Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

Power often trickles down from the top, particularly in monarchies. Back when kings and queens ruled nearly everywhere, it was preferable to be close to the reigning monarch in order to wield enormous power. Often the King or Queen’s right hand funneled the information to the ruler with a decidedly slanted point of view and their influence often dictated policy. In some ways, it’s no different today.

In the era of Queen Anne (Colman) of England, that spot at her right hand was occupied by Sarah Churchill (Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. With a war with France raging, Sarah had aligned herself with Minister of Finance Lord Godolphin (Smith) of the Tories who urged higher taxes to pay for the war, which not coincidentally was being waged by the Duke of Marlborough (Gatiss), Sarah’s husband. Opposing this is the Whigs led by Lord Richard Harley (Hoult) who mainly represented rural concerns who felt the greater brunt of the taxes as well as supplying the bulk of soldiers for the front.

While Kensington Palace where the Queen resided was blissfully insulated from the rest of England, into this atmosphere comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Stone) who was once a noblewoman who was eventually sold by her wastrel father to pay off gambling debts. Penniless, she hoped to find work in the Palace courtesy of her cousin.

A flare-up of the Queen’s painful and debilitating gout gives Abigail her opportunity to move up the ladder. Smart and resourceful, the new scullery maid knows how to make a concoction that can bring relief to the Queen’s condition. Grateful, Anne brings Abigail into her inner circle, much to Sarah’s consternation. The two cousins are well-aware of the other’s ambitious nature and as the two collide in a battle for the Queen’s affections, both women will stop at nothing to get what they want; Abigail to acquire power and Sarah to retain it.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has already put together an impressive filmography which includes Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of Sacred Deer – and yes there are lobsters herein, briefly. This is easily his most accessible film to date but that doesn’t make this mainstream. Lanthimos has a habit of making his audience view things in a slightly oddball way, be it through a script that’s oddball or in this particular case, through unusual camera angles and lenses – period pieces as this one is generally tend to use fairly straightforward angles and standard lenses. Here we get Anne gong down a long corridor through a fish-eye lens, causing it to look like she’s rounding a turn or a scene of Abigail sitting against a wall with lush tapestries sitting so still you’d swear she was part of the tableaux.

The main attraction here are the stellar performances of the female leads, all of whom were nominated for Golden Globes with Colman nearly a shoo-in to get a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Both Weisz and Stone have Academy Awards already and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Colman will join them in that exclusive club. Her Anne is strident, a little bit mad, horribly lonely, and oddly vulnerable. She is a figure to be feared but also a figure to be pitied.

Both Abigail and Sarah are conniving, ruthless and devious. Stone and Weisz play them as very similar women but who have different ways of going about things. Sarah is one of the few who can tell the Queen the truth; Abigail is more of a flatterer but appeals to the Queen’s softer side. Both women also use the bedroom to help cement their relationships with the Queen – one of the more questionable facts of the movie which is loosely based on actual events – some historians have complained a bit too loosely but that’s par for the course.

The production design is magnificent and we get a real sense of living in the early 18th century in the mansions and palaces of the court. The costumes are also likely to get an Oscar nomination; the Whigs are foppishly dressed in elaborate powdered wigs and a slathering of make-up, whereas the Tories tend towards more 17th century dress with wigs of natural color and less flamboyant clothes (and no make-up). The look of the movie is as lush as any you’ll see this year.

While the comedy is ultimately fairly black, there is a melancholy that starts to spread into the film late in the second half that is intriguing. Sadly, Lanthimos allows the movie to go on a bit too long, leading to a surreptitious checking of watches by the audience. Some of the intrigue could have been cut back to make the movie a little more zippy.

This is one of the most critically praised movies of the year and anyone who loves the Oscars will need to keep this on their list of must-sees as it is likely to have a fair amount of nominations. A Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question either, although I found it not quite as entertaining as I would have liked personally. I also found the pacing a little wonky in places and some of the humor too dry for my taste.

There are a few anachronisms, not all of them obvious, but for the most part this is a strong Oscar contender that has three terrific performances, a nice dichotomy of tones and a gilded atmosphere that will delight the eye. As I said, essential viewing for Oscar watchers but perhaps when all is said and done, just short of being an essential film.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by the three leading ladies are all Oscar-worthy and all portraying strong women in their own way. The period is captured nicely with terrific production design and costuming.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit overpraised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sexual content, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first time Colman has played a British monarch; she will also portray Queen Elizabeth II in the upcoming third season of The Crown, succeeding Claire Foy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Madness of King George
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Quake

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Swimming with Men


Rob Brydon is reaching for something.

(2018) Comedy (Sundance Selects)  Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves, Thomas Turgoose, Jane Horrocks, Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Parker, Ronan Daly, Chris Jepson, Spike White, Robert Daws, Charlotte Riley, Aschlin Ditta, Harry Demmon, Andrew Knott, Christian Rubeck, Orlando Seale, Luca Ribezzo, Margot Przymierska, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

We all need to blow off steam. Some do it by playing video games. Others do it with hobbies like cooking, gardening and so on. Some self-medicate while others go the sporting route. Some prefer physical exertions; running, working out or swimming.

Eric Scott (Brydon) is an accountant who is spiraling into crippling depression. His job is as boring as you might guess it is, his teenage son Billy (White) has little use for him (as teenage sons will do) and he suspects his wife Heather (Horrocks) who recently was elected to the borough council of having an affair with her obsequious boss (Daws).

Eric waits for six o’clock to check out of life for a little bit, heading down to the local municipal pool to swim laps and sometimes slip to the bottom to drown out the noise of his phone ringing endlessly, no pun intended. There he meets a group of seven men who get together to practice a sport men generally shy away from: synchronized swimming.

Yes, it’s an Olympic sport but only for the ladies. I think men are mainly confounded by the concept of working and moving in unison to create something beautiful. For the most part, the guys that Eric hooks up with – depressed Kurt (Akhtar), confidence lacking Luke (Graves), petty convict Tom (Turgoose), recently widowed Ted (Carter), non-talkative Silent Bob (Jepson), The New Guy (Daly) who refuses to give his name, even though he’s been part of the troupe for more than a year, and frustrated Colin (Mays).

Pool manager Susan (Riley) who knows something about synchronized swimming since she’s dating the captain of the Swedish team, sees something in these middle-aged, paunchy non-athletes. She endeavors to train them, thinking that they can represent Great Britain at the unofficial world championships (and yes, that’s really a thing) in Milan. The men other than Luke (who has a sweet on for the taken Susan) are a bit reluctant but they decide to go for it.

There’s nothing easy about it though and the men find themselves suspecting they are in over their heads. In the meantime, Eric’s marriage is continuing to crumble at an accelerating rate and work has gone from boring to irrelevant. Still, now he has something to believe in – if only his team can believe in each other.

Brydon is in many ways a poor man’s Hugh Grant; he’s a very handsome man who somehow manages to project an almost hangdog expression. He’s the anchor for the movie in more ways than one. I’ve enjoyed him as Steve Coogan’s second banana in the Trip movies but he’s not here doing impressions or wacky voices but relying on his charm and his comic ability and there’s more than enough here to carry the film. That’s a good thing because for most of the first part of the film Eric is quite the jerk.

The rest of the cast, mainly acclaimed British character actors and veterans of British television, acquit themselves well although their parts are mainly one-dimensional. It’s actually a little comforting that sort of thing happens in the UK as well as here. Anyway some of the characters could have done with a bit more depth.

Not all the comedy works and the end is more than a little bit predictable but this is a movie with a whole lot of heart and charm and while critics tend to grouse about movies like this being emotionally manipulative (which never fails to amaze me – all films are to some extent), this one found it a nicely made movie that gave me enough of the warm fuzzies to make it more than worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is really nice. The ending is not a shocker but still heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: The supporting characters lack depth even though they are well-acted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Swedish men’s synchronized swimming team was played by the actual Swedish national swimming team. This film is loosely based on their story.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man on the Dragon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Snowflake

The Mercy


There is no loneliness greater than being alone at sea.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Screen Media) Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Adrian Schiller, Andrew Buchan, Jonathan Bailey, Anna Madeley, Ken Stott, Tim Downie, Genevieve Gaunt, Sebastian Armesto, Martin Marquez, Finn Elliot, Kerry Godliman, Kit Connor, Eleanor Stagg, Simon Chandler, Greg Hicks, Zara Prassiinot. Directed by James Marsh

 

The sea is an unforgiving mistress. She tolerates no mistakes, no miscalculations, no regret. When you are alone at sea, there is no one more alone in the world, to paraphrase Sir Francis Chichester, the first man to circumnavigate the globe by himself with only one stop (in Australia).

Now, at a large boating show in England, Chichester (McBurney) is on hand to announce a competition sponsored by the Sunday Times; a race around the world by boat with no stops. In 1968, it was a grueling, nearly impossible feat. There was no resupplying your ship – you had to make due with what you brought with you. There was no stopping to make repairs; if anything broke down, it was up to you to fix it. There was no support system other than the voices you heard on the radio. You were well and truly alone.

To nautical inventor and weekend sailor Donald Crowhurst (Firth) this sounded like just the challenge he needed. The creator of a pre-GPS electronic locator device known as the Navicat, he is at the boat show where Chichester makes his announcement and the adventure takes hold of his imagination. While among friends, he blithely announces that he has registered for the race which is news to his wife Clare (Weisz). She’s more than a little surprised; the family has a comfortable middle class existence in the coastal town of Teignmouth. They have three children who absolutely worship Daddy. Why on earth would he want to risk his life to be away from his loving family for months?

But Donald is determined to see this through. He is designing a trimaran, a catamaran with an extra float to give it more buoyancy and speed. Donald is certain with the safety devices of his own invention that he can win the race. However, delays in building the boat (many of them due to adding the new technology) create frustration for Crowhurst and his main investor, Stanley Best (Stott), an RV salesman (called caravans in England) and Crowhurst’s publicist Rodney Hallworth (Thewlis).

Hallworth has been busy creating an image of Crowhurst as a plucky English hero, a weekend sailor braving the dangerous waters of the Southern Oceans which frightened even Chichester. He has become a media darling but the deadline for setting sail is fast approaching and despite Crowhurst’s notoriety and plethora of sponsorships, he can’t speed up the process of building the boat.

So he launches on the very last day possible and it becomes very clear that the boat, named the Teignmouth Electron after his marine electronics business, is not nearly ready – it’s barely even seaworthy – and his gumption to make repairs at sea prove to be woefully optimistic. As he approaches the tip of South America where Cape Horn awaits to deliver him into the South Pacific, he realizes that he’ll never survive the journey. If he returns however he will forfeit his business, his home and nearly everything he has, plunging his family into destitution. He is left with an impossible choice…until he comes up with a creative solution.

This is based on a true story, one which is fairly well-known in sailing circles as well as in Great Britain where Crowhurst remains fairly well-known. To most Americans however, the details of the story will be unfamiliar so there is a good deal I’m leaving out. What I don’t have to avoid talking about is the performances of three of the best actors of their generation in England. Firth and Weisz, both Oscar winners, and Thewlis who has been nominated for a Golden Globe, all deliver outstanding performances. Thewlis, as the brash ex-crime reporter who is bound and determined to make Crowhurst a household name (and succeeds all too well) is perhaps the most noticeable of the three.

Both Weisz and Firth understate their performances quite a bit, especially Weisz who is mainly forced to keep a stiff upper lip in public but privately is terrified that she’ll never see her husband alive again. She shows some backbone, addressing the media horde camped at her front door near the end of the film and it’s an incandescent scene and shows just how powerful an actress Weisz truly is.

But for me, the star is Firth. He plays a good man, a fine husband and devoted father who talks himself into a situation that leaves him clearly over his head. We watch as he makes decisions that seem logical at the time but that lead him deeper down a path of no return, then watch as alone at sea those decisions not only come back to haunt him but prey upon his mind like voracious tigers. It’s a chilling performance, one of Firth’s best which is saying something.

Another thing; the sound effects are absolutely amazing, from the creaking of the boat, the groaning of the metal, the waves smashing into the hull…all amplified and all making the experience so much more realistic. You get a sense of why Crowhurst’s ordeal having to listen to that non-stop for months. That alone makes this worth seeing in a theater, if it plays anywhere near you.

Marsh stumbles a little when it comes to building the dramatic tension. Although you get a sense of the wheels turning and forcing Crowhurst down a path that will lead him to face impossible choices, when it finally comes to the denouement it almost feels anti-climactic.

This is a movie that if it had been picked up by a major we would be hearing about for the performances of the three leads, possibly with Oscar ramifications. Even though it is unlikely to get distribution in most places, this is a truly fine film that deserves to be seen. Keep an eye out for it at your local art house or on your favorite streaming service. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: The sound effects really enhance the story nicely. It’s a compelling story, compellingly acted by a terrific cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic tension isn’t as great as it could have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some mature themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The man playing the mayor of Teignmouth is the son of the man who was actually mayor at the time of Crowhurst’s voyage; the son has himself been elected mayor of Teignmouth twice.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All is Lost
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Luciferina

Border (Gräns)


Swimming in really cold water can be a scream.

(2018) Romance (NEON) Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren, Kjell Wilhelmsen, Rakel Wärmländer, Andreas Kundler, Matt Boustedt, Tomas Åhnstrand, Josefin Neldén, Henrik Johansson, Ibrahim Faal, Åsa Janson, Donald Högberg, Krister Kern, Viktor Åkerblom, Robert Enckell, Elisabeth Göransson.  Directed by Ali Abbasi

 

Sometimes films come along that are so different as to be like a precious gem. You don’t really want to spoil the experience of the moviegoer by telling them too much about the plot or the movie itself – you want them to get the opportunity to see it without any preconceptions, without any prejudice. You want the power of the film to wash over them, or kick them in the gut where applicable. Border is such a film.

Tina (Melander) works at a border crossing as a guard looking for smugglers. She is successful at her job because she has the uncanny ability to smell emotions on people – things like fear, guilt and rage. When she smells that on someone, she hauls them in to have their luggage and their persons examined. Her ability has helped break up a child pornography ring and foil minors trying to smuggle booze into Sweden. Then she meets Vore (Milonoff), a traveler who for some reason foils her olfactory radar.

Vore also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Tina; both have pronounced ridges above the brow; both have teeth that would make Shane MacGowan flinch and both have mysterious scars on their backs. Both have also been struck by lightning and have a severe fear of thunderstorms which always seem to grow more violent around them. Tina is fast falling for the cavalier Vore despite the fact she lives with Roland (Thorsson) who breeds Rottweilers who for some reason have a strong dislike for Tina.

The movie is mainly from Tina’s point of view; she also has an ailing father (Ljunggren) whose memory is beginning to go who also plays a major role in discovering who Tina really is. Unlike a lot of indie dramas, Tina actually finds out who she really is. This discovery is at the heart of Border which is based on a novella by the same Swede who wrote Let the Right One In.

Both Melander and Milonoff shine in thankless roles. Both have to deal with a good deal of make-up prosthetics and act not so much around the applications but through them. Both are aware of their unconventional looks and use that to define their characters: in Vore’s case, it is a defiance that is at the center of who he is while for Tina it is shame.

The music and cinematography are both very lovely, from the winter wonderland of Sweden framed by beautiful ambient music that is soothing and not unlike the music of Sigur Ros at times. It makes for a dream-like atmosphere although there is nothing dream-like about where Tina works which is industrial and nondescript. This is like a fairy tale set in the real world and that’s really as descriptive as I can get without revealing a bunch of things that would lessen the experience for you. The best advice I can give is to go see this and decide for yourself, particularly if you like the works of off-kilter filmmakers like David Lynch or Yorgos Lanthimos. Abbasi could well end up being compared to those worthies…or they to him.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is a beautiful ambient one. Melander and Milonoff deliver strong performances in thankless roles. It’s a very different movie in a very good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending runs on a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex and graphic nudity as well as some disturbing images and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is Sweden’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Perfume
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mercy

Family in Transition (Mishpakha BiTrans)


Morning bathroom time can be crowded in the Tzuk household.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Amit/Imit Tzuk, Galit Tzuk, Agam Tzuk, Mimi Tzuk, Yuval Tzuk, Yarden Tzuk, Peleg Tzuk. Directed by Ofir Trainin

 

Even as gay and lesbian rights begun to begrudgingly be acknowledged, transsexuals continue to be seriously discriminated against. In a quasi-theocracy such as Israel, many citizens have a hard time dealing with it even today.

Amit Tzuk and his wife Galit have been together since they were 15. They live in the Northern Israel coastal town of Nahariya near the Jordanian border. It’s a fairly conservative town with a population of about 60,000. They are happy here, they have family here and if they both have their way they will spend the rest of their lives here, raising their four children.

Amit, like most Israeli men, is a veteran of the armed forces (the army in his case) and ran his household in the traditional manner, with the husband being the boss and the wife being submissive to his needs. However, he drops a bombshell when he announces to Galit that he is really a woman trapped in a man’s body and he intends to get gender reassignment surgery.

Galit is extraordinarily supportive through the hormonal treatments, complaining a bit that “as a man, she never cried but now she cries all the time” (welcome to the world of husbands, dear heart). She is his rock during the hormone treatments; she is equally his rock when he has the surgery in Thailand and during the extended and painful recovery process. The children, to their credit, show equal support even though they are bullied at school. The family must endure homophobic slurs hurled at them by passing cyclists from time to time.

The decision of Amit to transition to Imit is difficult on the entire family. A sister of Amit, married to an Orthodox Jew, refuses to speak to the couple or even acknowledge them. Other friends of the family also adopt the same policy. And shortly after the couple return from Thailand, the ramifications of the surgery begin to affect Galit as well.

Trainin elects to adopt a fly on the wall style for the documentary that ends up feeling like a home movie. That’s a compliment, as it gives the story an intimacy that a series of talking heads would not. The story is told sequentially and while it’s hard not to wonder how much the family played to the camera – that’s just human nature – it’s hard not to feel that the emotions you’re seeing aren’t genuine.

There is a radical tonal shift in the final third of the film that I don’t want to get too much in detail to simply not to spoil the film. Suffice to say that it is an emotionally powerful shift, one that enhances the film and contributes a great deal to the overall genuineness of the movie.

Although I have to say that the music that the couple listens to is cringeworthy to this ex-music critic (I’m very much a music snob I’m afraid) as being bland 80s style pop. Not my cup off tea, but that’s just me. Please don’t send Mossad to my home to teach me a lesson in manners.

The thing that I thought was more egregious is that while the documentary is only 70 minutes long which I appreciated, it felt like there were some things skipped particularly in the evolution of the couple’s relationship after the surgery. It doesn’t feel like we’re getting the whole story which is a bit frustrating.

The film looks at daily life in Israel in a place other than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem which is a pleasure. We also get an insight into Israeli views into LGBTQ rights which are evolving but still controversial, just as they are here. I might have liked the filmmakers to be a little less brief and maybe allow the Tzuk family to express their feelings a little more but it’s possible that the family was unwilling to do that. Still this is a fascinating documentary indeed.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a home movie in the positive sense of the word. There are twists of emotional intensity that are surprising and heartrending.
REASONS TO STAY: At times it feels like there are some elements missing from the story.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is for mature audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers spent two years with the Tzuk family.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Transparent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Border

Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer


When the Reindeer Games become more like the Hunger Games.

(2018) Animated Feature (Screen Media)  Starring the voices of Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee, Morena Baccarin, Martin Short, John Cleese, Christopher Jacot, Rob Tinkler, George Buza, Jeff Dunham, Jean Yoon, Julie Lemieux, Carlos Bustamante, Scott Farley, Steph Lynn Robinson, Darren Frost, Angela Fusco, Quancetia Hamilton, Carly Heffernan. Directed by Jennifer Westcott

 

Every year at this time we get a glut of Christmas-themed animated movies and TV shows, all looking to take their place among the perennials that get watched over and over again year after year. Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer has the ingredients to join that rarefied company but it won’t be an easy hike to get there.

In a world (and what critic hasn’t dreamed of starting a review off with those three words) where Santa (Buza) is real and everyone knows it, he is struggling to keep up with increasing demand as the world’s population explodes. His original team of reindeer are shrinking with one going to an ashram to find himself, another defecting to Russia for a romance, and most recently Vixen (Hamilton) leaving for the Florida Keys to open up a juice bar – three days before Christmas.

This leads to a frantic try-out competition for the coveted position on Santa’s team but his right-hand elf Lemondrop (Short) is no fan of reindeer and he has a point; reindeer have become arrogant, egotistical and overbearing and the elves loathe them. Santa keeps them on as a kind of nod to tradition.

There are reindeer trainers all over the world and as word gets out about the tryouts, Walter (Tinkler) – the owner of a slowly failing petting zoo – is counting on DJ (Jacot) to be his meal ticket. He has already sold off the animals in the petting zoo including pony (“MINIATURE HORSE!”) Elliot (Hutcherson) and Elliot’s omnivorous friend Hazel the goat (Bee). Elliot has long had the goal of being part of Santa’s team but it’s a reindeer-only club. Nonetheless he and supportive Hazel stow away on a rocket sleigh (all the trainers have them although Walter’s is in line with his status falling apart) and swaggers his way into the tryout with the help of fake antlers.

The rest of the plot is fairly formulaic; the buyer of the farm animals turns out to be a producer of exotic jerky meat, there is a conspiracy in Santa’s village to force the reindeer out and convert to rocket sleighs, and saving the lives of his farm friends as well as saving Christmas itself will eventually rest on the broad miniature shoulders of Elliot.

The animation here is mostly nondescript, although some of the Santa’s village and arena scenes are pretty imaginative and for once the characters have expressive faces rather than robotic ones. While he only appears in two scenes as Santa’s haughty reindeer Donner, John Cleese is always a pleasure. Something tells me that if filmmaker Jennifer Westcott had let Short, Cleese and Dunham improvise a bit, it might have benefited her film a lot.

Some critics have latched onto a subplot involving magic cookies which make the reindeer fly (as well as any other animal that eats them) and some unscrupulous reindeer taking more of them than they’re allowed, some even suggesting it promotes performance enhancing drug use. Sorry colleagues; sometimes a magic cookie is just a magic cookie.

For that reason the film feels more than a little bit formulaic which hurts its chances of ascending the heights as does the overbearing soundtrack which sounds like what you might have heard in a cartoon circa 1975. However, there’s still a chance for plucky Elliot to become a seasonal favorite. Many of the movies and TV shows that we consider to be classics really aren’t all that good; they resonate with us because we saw them over and over again as children. And I will say given the avalanche of product that comes out each year, this is head and shoulders above the rest which is mostly mindless soulless dreck. I don’t know that I’d want to revisit this year after year but there are children seeing it this year for whom this will become a treasured childhood memory. One certainly can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: This has the makings of a Christmas perennial. The voice work is splendid and any chance to hear John Cleese at work is worth it.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is annoying. There are a few too many clichés in the script.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude and mildly suggestive humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to a very small limited release as well as a VOD release, the film has a one day special screening on December 1 at about 100 additional theaters across the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Family in Transition

DriverX


After midnight, he’s gonna let it all hang out.

(2018) Drama (Sundance Selects) Patrick Fabian, Tanya Clarke, Desmin Borges, Travis Schuldt, Melissa Fumero, Oscar Nuñez, Nina Senicar, Iqbal Thebal, Max Gail, Josh Fingerhut, Jennifer Cadena, Camille Cregan, Kyra Pringle, Blake Robbins, Alison Trumbull, Tiffany Panhilason, Caitlin Kimball, Anne Moore, Heather Ankeny, Kristina Jimenez. Directed by Henry Barrial

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the workplace is changing. At one time, a single family member – usually the male – was able to support his family from working a job that he would likely stay at for most of his life. People were loyal to their employers and quite frankly, their employers were loyal to them.

Inflation changed all that and soon women were forced to enter the job market rather than their traditional role of staying home and taking care of the house and children. Both parents were working often long hours, giving them less time with the kids and less time for themselves. People were less loyal to their employers as they moved readily to better paying jobs elsewhere when the opportunity arose.

Employers were also less loyal to their employees, ending pensions in favor of 401k plans and slowly but surely cutting down on health care benefits, going for less expensive plans as the price of health insurance skyrocketed. To make matters worse, the availability of jobs that pay decently have dropped in favor of contract work, job sharing and gig employment, forcing a lot of people to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet. The fact of the matter is that people are a commodity that have become less valuable over time.

Leonard Moore (Fabian) is a victim of a changing economy. He once was the owner of a thriving record store – back in the day when records came on vinyl – and stayed with it until the bitter end when even compact discs were rendered obsolete. Unemployed, he’s a stay-at-home dad whose wife Dawn (Clarke) is the breadwinner but who is getting stressed as the home insurance bill is coming due and they simply don’t have the funds to cover it. As most homeowners know, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, your mortgage company will foreclose. People can and have lost their homes because of a high insurance bill.

When his extensive vinyl collection proves not to be the financial windfall he was hoping for and an interview with a social media firm ends up fruitless, he does what a lot of people do – he takes up using the family Prius as a taxicab for a (fictional) ridesharing service called DriverX. Leonard stays home with the kids while his wife’s at work and when she gets back home, heads out into the streets of L.A., generally well into the night only to return home after his wife has fallen asleep.

He meets all sorts; drunken millennials riding from party to party and often ralphing in his car or on it which he dutifully cleans up; rude folks who belittle the driver or talk as if he isn’t even in the car and women who come on to him with a thought of a late night cable TV-like experience in the back of his car.

The service is so stingy that riders are unable to tip him, leaving him to rely on good ratings to get customers. Customers complain there’s no complimentary bottled water or charging cords for their phones. Although he is a friendly enough person, that doesn’t seem to factor in to how others relate to him. The middle-aged Leonard also finds it hard to relate to his Millennial customers, most of them more tech-savvy than he and few of them understand him either, seeing him as a relic with an encyclopedic knowledge of bands not relevant to themselves.

Writer-director Barrial based the film on his own experiences as an Uber driver and there is a feeling of genuineness that comes out of it. While there may be a few too many drunken Millennial scenes to do the movie any good – one gets the sense that Barrial isn’t too enamored of that oft-criticized generation – there is a lot of genuine insight into the older generations ability to adapt to a changing world. While the younger passengers are adept with their smart phones and seem to know what to expect from their tech, older passengers seem to struggle and often need instruction from Leonard to get to where they’re going.

Fabian, best known for his work on Better Call Saul, is an engaging presence. It’s a rare opportunity for this veteran character actor to get a lead role and he handles it nicely. The chemistry between Clarke and Fabian is a little weak but then again, their characters are having some fairly serious marital issues so it makes sense that the bond between them feels wonky. Clarke has the unenviable job of playing a bit of a bitch – she rarely gets any sympathetic moments. Few women in the film do, coming off as drunken hoes or cast-iron bee-yatches. A couple of sympathetic female characters would have been nice.

There are some nice cinematic moments as Leonard cruises the post-midnight streets of the City of Angels, his face aglow in the neon “X” that he displays to let all and sundry know he’s a DriverX drone. Although this is essentially a serious drama, there are some light hearted moments as well, as when Leonard gets into a fender bender and tries to resolve the insurance in paying for the damage; the office of DriverX has seemingly no human presence and when he finally speaks to a human being, she is as robotic as the machines that glide about the quiet, dark office of the app giant. I suppose that makes as proper a metaphor for modern society as any.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting points are made about the gig economy, the generation gap and the role of technology in the workplace. Fabian has an engaging screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: There is more vomiting here than any film needs. There are not many sympathetic female characters here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actresses who play Leonard’s daughters are sisters in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taxicab Confessions
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer