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
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The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses

Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden