Review by Camden Ferrell
Christmas is many Americans favorite holiday, and Apple TV+ has a documentary about one extreme Christmas fanatic. ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas is the second directorial effort from Becky Read. However, this film’s subject is radically different than her previous work. While this documentary has a wacky premise, it doesn’t have much substance, and it suffers significantly from wavering in its direction and execution.
Jeremy Morris is a lawyer in Northern Idaho, and like many people, he enjoys Christmas and decorating his home. Unlike most people, his decorations are beyond extravagant, featuring countless lights, choirs, and even a camel, becoming a community spectacle or eye sore depending on who you ask. However, his plans to inspire Christmas cheer are met with a notice that his event violates rules according to the HOA. From here, we see Morris do everything in his power to keep his lights on. In and of itself, this premise is interesting, and it has the benefit of exploring the legalese behind a conflict such as this.
Despite having a great set up, the retelling of events leaves a lot to be desired. It does a decent job of giving the audience context, but it lacks originality, and it’s not as captivating as it could have been. The film also has an overreliance on talking heads. While they’re effective means of storytelling, this film used it as a crutch when it’s B-roll couldn’t do the job.
One of the main problems with the film is that it remains sporadically ambiguous on its opinions on Morris. This gets especially muddled when he starts arguing that he is suffering religious discrimination. It’s ridiculous, but it’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers are in agreement or are making fun of his actions. I imagine audiences might be split on their opinions of the subject, and it doesn’t help that the film can’t seem to make up its mind on the matter.
Many parts of this film feels so inflated, that it comes off like a fearmongering Fox News segment, and it undermines the true story at its core. While I admit the premise has an innate factor of intrigue, it’s a shame to see how the film doesn’t make the most of its opportunity. Love him or hate him, Morris has charisma, and it’s disappointing to see how the film doesn’t amount to much when there are some good things working in its favor.
‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas might be interesting to some audiences who want to see a silly battle between a Christmas-obsessed resident and the HOA. Unfortunately, some may also find its execution to be generic and uninspired throughout.
‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas is streaming on Apple TV+ November 26.
Reviewed by Adam Donato
A Castle for Christmas is the latest in the onslaught on Christmas content coming out on Netflix this holiday season. This one sports two stars who have seen better days: Cary Elwes and Brooke Shields. The film is directed by Mary Lambert whose most notable feature is 1989’s Pet Sematary. Does this Netflix movie have the star power to make it feel like any more than a dime a dozen Hallmark Christmas movie?
Shields plays Sophie Brown, a famous romance novelist who is being shredded by her fans for killing off the male romantic interest. She decides to get away from it all by taking a work trip out to Scotland so she can start writing her next project. After visiting a castle, she decides to buy it, but is confronted by the reluctant and stubborn Duke who is forced to sell his land. Now they’re stuck in the castle trying to outlast each other, but things get messy when they start to develop feelings for each other.
Wow, this is one of the most cliche Christmas romances there is. Start off with a forced meet cute where they awkwardly fall into each other’s arms. He’s a Christmas Grinch and she’s going to steal his heart with the magic of Christmas. It’s sappy and cheesy content that the target demographic has seen a million times. That being said, this is some single mom’s favorite movie of the year for sure. She grew up watching Blue Lagoon and crushing on Westley from The Princess Bride. It’s the perfect movie for the type of movie casual whose standard for this movie is that it has romance and is about Christmas.
Speaking of moms, the movie starts off with an odd cameo from Drew Barrymore. Sophie Brown makes an appearance on Barrymore’s real life talk show promoting her latest book. Barrymore chastises Sophie for killing the male love interest. Sophie responds by asserting her power over these characters insisting that she could kill him in a variety of different ways. Credit where credit is due, this is so over the top that it’s decently funny. The rest of the movie does not have this kind of energy. The special effects are hopefully a symptom of the low budget, but nobody is watching this for the effects. The cliche third act conflict is completely ridiculous and is resolved in the most insignificant way possible.
There’s an audience for this movie, but it’s certainly not anybody who takes film seriously in any capacity. It’s perfectly serviceable for what it is and it does help that the leads are a couple has-beens instead of two no name actors. This story has been told a million times and it’s not even a good one. Steer clear of this Christmas dud.
A Castle for Christmas is now streaming on Netflix.
Review by Sean Boelman
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the rare American filmmakers who is both a critical darling and an audience favorite. And his newest film, the coming-of-age comedy Licorice Pizza, is his most accessible movie in years, a hilarious and heartfelt ode to the Los Angeles of the 1970s which benefits from his unique voice.
The film follows a teenage boy who is a former child actor and currently a failed young entrepreneur as he befriends and forms a unique connection with an adult woman. It’s definitely a movie that deals more in vibes than plot, but the atmosphere that Anderson builds is so infectiously fun that the movie is endlessly charming.
Anderson weaves through the different pieces of his story in a way that is somehow both relaxed and full of life. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, and while there are a few scenes that will stand out to viewers more than others, these scenes are nicely distributed over the entire runtime to keep the audience interested.
Although this definitely isn’t one of Anderson’s more important films in terms of themes, that doesn’t make it any less profound. Anderson offers some poetic observations about youth and growing up. He takes this very common arc and makes it into something refreshing by writing characters that are remarkably empathetic.
A big part of what makes this movie work so well is that the characters are very complex. Even though the two leads both frequently make frustrating decisions, it’s their flaws that makes them so endearing. And the film is also filled to the brim with bit parts based on or inspired by real Hollywood figures from the past.
Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (a frequent collaborator of Anderson), does an exceptional job in his leading role, bringing a lot of charm to the character. Alana Haim is great opposite him, commanding the screen and sometimes even stealing his thunder. And Bradley Cooper has an extremely memorable cameo resulting in one of the funniest scenes in any movie this year.
Anderson is one of the few filmmakers working today that still has an affinity for shooting on celluloid, and it really pays off in immersing the viewer in the world that he is setting up. It’s a gorgeous, nostalgic-looking film that radiates a visual warmth. And a soundtrack filled with some great songs from the ‘70s rounds it out quite well.
Licorice Pizza is probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s best and most consistent movie since Magnolia. It strikes the right balance between poignancy and hilariousness to make it both meaningful and a crowd-pleaser.
Licorice Pizza hits theaters on November 26.
Review by Sean Boelman
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has picked up numerous accolades on the festival circuit on the way to being selected as Japan’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. A contemplative, poetic masterpiece, this is one of the brightest spots in the filmmaker’s already accomplished career.
The film follows a stage director still grieving the death of his wife as he bonds with a chauffeur while putting on a performance of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. The movie is based on a short story by the legendary author Haruki Murakami, and in their script Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe manage to expand the material while preserving the author’s voice.
Creating a three-hour film out of a short story is an interesting prospect, but Hamguchi’s movie is more of an expansion of Murakami’s work than a direct adaptation of it. And while it is a very talky, measured three hours, the things it has to say are consistently profound and the way they are said allows it to be absorbing.
And the film definitely justifies its extended runtime with the sheer amount of things it has to say. Having this time allows Hamaguchi to explore his main themes with plenty of depth while also leaving enough time to explore other topics. Depending on their background, different aspects of the movie will resonate with the viewer, which is part of what makes it so special.
The protagonist of the film is an exceptionally nuanced character. The first act of the movie sets him up to be a very specific type of character, only for the rest of the film to break down these preconceptions and expose his vulnerability. But what is even more impressive is that the movie features multiple supporting characters that feel fully fleshed-out.
Hidetoshi Nishijima gives an exceptional performance in the leading role, bringing so much empathy and nuance to the character. It’s the type of turn that isn’t good because it’s flashy, but rather because of its quiet power. And despite a relatively small amount of screen time, Reika Kirishima will leave quite a lasting impact on the viewer.
It will come as no surprise to fans of Hamaguchi’s work that this is an extraordinarily crafted film. The cinematography is exquisite, with strikingly elegant compositions. Although this is definitely an actor’s movie, which is fitting given the content of the story, that doesn’t mean that the filmmaker is any less diligent with the technical aspects.
Drive My Car is an exceptional feat, taking its unlikely origins and making a magnificent three-hour poem out of it. Although some may not pick up on all of its nuances, there is plenty of greatness here that would make it hard not to admire.
Drive My Car is now in theaters.
Review by Camden Ferrell
The Unforgivable is a new drama that is based on the British mini-series Unforgiven. It features an all-star cast and is directed by German director Nora Fingscheidt. Despite all of the talent on and off screen, this movie fails to be gripping and seems to suffer a crisis of identity.
Ruth is a woman who has just been released from prison after serving for a violent crime. Upon her release, she must get readjusted to society and search for her young sister who has since been adopted and forgotten Ruth. This is an interesting premise that has a lot of promise for exploring different themes while delivering captivating drama.
The script was written by Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, Courtenay Miles, each of whom have experience writing and working on acclaimed films and series. However, this effort is tepid more often than not. Being based on a three-episode miniseries, the movie can’t but feel bloated. There are certainly some plot lines and scenes that are fine in the context of a series but should have been cut from a movie that has under two hours to tell its story.
The movie is full of dialogue that is neither memorable nor unforgivable. It’s as standard as drama dialogue gets. In addition to this, the script along with Fingscheidt’s direction can’t ever agree on what the film is. It jumps between a redemption story, a legal drama, and a thriller, and it doesn’t really excel at any of them. The movie could have benefited from a more consistent tone to connect its narrative more cohesively.
The acting is simultaneously the best and most disappointing part of the film. Sandra Bullock leads the film as Ruth, and while she gives a decent performance, it is far from her best. The film also stars and underutilizes Jon Bernthal and Vincent D’Onofrio. I also want to point out the missed opportunity that is Viola Davis’ character. She doesn’t have much to do in the film, but Davis is one of this generation’s bests, and it’s a shame to see her misused in a film like this.
The film also doesn’t feel unique or impressive on a superficial level either. Again, this is disappointing considering the talent working on the film. The cinematography was done by Oscar-winner Guillermo Navarro, and this movie feels as generic as it comes. This, paired with the same nondescript overly emotional score, do nothing to supplement the already lackluster story and execution beneath the film’s surface.
Ultimately, this film has all the right ingredients for a great drama, but it doesn’t know what to do with all of its moving pieces. It should have focused more on the challenges of felons to readjust to a society both economically and personally. However, the movie opts to juggle a handful of storylines and not properly develop them each as they should.
The Unforgivable is a forgettable drama that will go down as a failed showcase for Bullock. It feels undercooked and tries to stuff too much into such a short time. It might have been intended to be Oscar-bait, but I don’t think it’ll succeed in catching any on its hook.
The Unforgivable is in select theaters November 24 and on Netflix December 10.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
It's that time of year when all the studios are releasing their holiday movies. Warner Bros. has tapped 8-Bit Christmas as their entry into the Christmas film genre. Some of them are just throw-away films that don't have much meaning to them, while others have a deeper meaning that can transcend the genre. 8-Bit Christmas is one of the latter.
This film picks up in the outskirts of Chicago. Neil Patrick Harris plays a father who has to tell a story to his daughter about Christmas. She needs a lesson about why she should get a cell phone. This is a framing device of the main story. The main story takes place in 1988 and depicts a younger version of Harris's character (Winslow Fegley). He wants a Nintendo video game system for Christmas.
Christmas movies of the past, such as It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and Elf, have touched audiences worldwide. They hit on something most movies can't: the spirit of the holidays and what that means for millions of people. 8-Bit Christmas captures that spirit like those legendary films from the past. The period aspect of the film was quite nostalgic for me as a child of the 80s while the framing device showed a fatherly moment with his daughter. Both elements worked very well together
This film dealt with kids a lot from the past to the present. It had a feeling of The Sandlot in regards to the various types of kids you would see in a group. The smart kid, the geeky kid, the rich kid, and every type of kid in between, including the school bully, which every film like this needs. The parental figures in the film are very entertaining as well. Steve Zahn and June Diane are typical parents in the '80s: a little overbearing, but very loving and supportive of their son and daughter. Harris is very good as well in his role.
This film is a period piece that reflects on the 1980s. It deals with so much from that period such as references to the Chicago Bears, Super Bowl champs from a couple of years before, Cabbage Patch Kids, a popular doll that every little girl wanted at that time, and the focus of this film Nintendo. My brother was great at Nintendo. He beat games very fast. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out and Super Mario Brothers were favorites of mine growing up in that era. I can relate to the need and love of that gaming system.
8-Bit Christmas has so much going for it, even beyond the time of year it's being released in. The family aspects are very sweet. The camaraderie amongst the youths is a lot of fun in the film. The nostalgic bits bring back so many memories for me. The performances were all terrific as well. I think a lot of people are going to relate to this film like I did. Warner Bros. and HBO Max have another winner on their hands.
8-Bit Christmas is now streaming on HBO Max.
Review by Adam Donato
These days, Netflix churns out Christmas movies like it’s the Hallmark channel. The latest comes from Gil Kenan who switches holidays after directing Monster House and Poltergeist. The supporting cast is where it’s at with this movie. Maggie Smith, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig, Joel Fry, Jim Broadbent, and Stephen Merchant all get a chance to shine in this movie. Newcomer Henry Lawfull comes off a minute role in the Les Miserables TV miniseries to star in this movie.
Lawfull plays a boy named Nikolas who goes on an adventure with his pet mouse to find Elfhelm and bring back hope. All of this is a story told by Smith’s character to Fry’s children on Christmas Eve. This cliche is very tired and feels entirely unnecessary in connection to the story. It’s nice to have Smith as the narrator throughout, but everytime the movie cuts back to real life, the pacing comes to a grinding halt. The story within the story is also not very fresh. It’s saved by good performances and solid special effects.
The tone is the weirdest part of the movie. It’s a Christmas movie so it is supposed to be a generally feel good type of movie. It’s obnoxiously sad throughout the majority of the movie. It deals with the loss of parents with Christmas as the solution. They heavily rely on Merchant as a talking mouse for the majority of their comic relief. Seldom is he at all funny and is the most cringe character in the movie. Besides that, the movie is too dark for its own good.
Obviously, the story is an origin for Santa Claus. There’s a million of these and while this one is certainly well made, it doesn’t stand out well at all. It takes way too long for the adventure to get off the ground. When it’s time for the third act, it feels like there is a severe drop in the stakes. Yes, the goal of the story is to bring back hope to the people, but the main character shows zero affinity for his town or his people. Why anything happens at the end feels less of a natural progression of the characters in the story and more of a shoehorned fulfillment of the tired origin story.
It’s really not that bad at all. The supporting cast is enough to keep this Christmas flick afloat. There’s a lower bar for Netflix movies as it’s much less of a commitment to click on an app than it is to go spend money at a theater. The target audience will surely enjoy this movie and not care about its flaws. Its prime form is to be thrown on in the background this holiday season.
A Boy Called Christmas hits Netflix on November 24.
Review by Sean Boelman
The crazy thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it was essentially kickstarted by a series of unexpectedly successful comic book movies featuring B-list superheroes like Iron Man and Thor. It’s only fitting that this new phase of the series, dominated by Disney+, is led by some of the more obscure properties, although Hawkeye may be pushing the limit a bit too far.
The series follows Clint Barton as he takes a young, skilled archer under his wing when his dark past begins to catch up with him and finds her in the crossfire. Many wondered how they were going to pull off an entire show based off of the Avenger who is generally considered to be the lamest, and the first two episodes don’t make it clear that they did.
There is something to be said in the series about accountability for one’s past actions, but this isn’t anything that hasn’t been explored better in the past (specifically in Captain America: Civil War). It’s also very clear from the beginning that this is a passing-the-baton arc, which is frustratingly bland.
Kate Bishop ranks among the middle of the new Phase Four MCU protagonists so far. She has a slightly arrogant and entitled attitude to her that makes her a bit difficult to approach. What the series is doing with Hawkeye, turning him into an unwilling mentor of sorts, shows a lot of potential to add depth to a previously uninteresting character.
Jeremy Renner is at his best in the show when he is able to flex his comedic chops. One of the issues with the show is that it is trying to be both a serious crime drama and a campy show about people running around in spandex shooting bows and arrows. And Renner seems to be much more comfortable with the latter.
Avengers: Endgame gave us a brief glimpse of Barton picking up the Ronin mantle, and while those events have a direct influence on the plot of this series, the action here is nowhere near as inspired as that one fight sequence. Although there isn’t much action in these first two episodes, the little which there is doesn’t have much creativity in the choreography.
And then there’s the fact that this is also a Christmas show. This may not serve too much of a purpose other than to allow the series to be set in winter in New York City, but that does make for a gorgeous background. And it’s definitely one of the more restrained series in terms of execution, but that’s because it’s one of the smaller-scale ones.
More so than the other Disney+ series, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on in Hawkeye with just the first two episodes. However, if it doesn’t pick up the pace (and soon), the result will be one of the most forgettable entries in the MCU.
Hawkeye streams on Disney+ beginning November 24.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Stories about the origin and tragic fall of a famous family are nothing new in Hollywood. As books are written or people pass away from one thing or another, these types of stories get brought to the big or small screen. In the case of House of Gucci, it's not the first film or television project about a famous fashion designer, and probably won't be the last.
Young Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) is an innocent law student in Italy when he catches the eye of Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) at a nightclub one evening. She's the daughter of a garbage truck mogul. They eventually hit it off and become romantically linked despite the efforts of his father Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons) to stop the relationship. His uncle, Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) takes him under his wing to show him the fashion side of the Gucci business. He takes his now-wife Patrizia along with him to New York. This is the beginning of the end for this thriving family.
Ridley Scott has had a long and storied career in filmmaking since the late '70s and early '80s. His films range from Alien to Blade Runner to Gladiator. This year he's got two awards contenders on his hands — The Last Duel and House of Gucci — each with big-name casts. Both are distinctly different from anything he's done in the past. House of Gucci isn't his first biopic either. American Gangster was a big hit back in 2007. He's aiming for another with his latest film.
Besides the aforementioned cast members, there is also another actor known for immersing himself in his characters. He'll put on a lot of makeup, or in the case of House of Gucci, prosthetics. Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto) is a dim-witted fool with a gift for designing clothes. Leto is unrecognizable as this character, but he has a lot in the script to do despite being unrecognizable. He's like a court jester or a Fredo to put a Godfather reference to good use.
On those lines, the clothes and hairstyles match the aesthetic of the film. The setting of the '80s is very well fleshed out on screen. The scenes in Italy and New York City seem very authentic. Seeing as this story wasn't that long ago, the film looks like it's set in the modern-day even though this took place four decades ago. The crafts departments were on point in House of Gucci as they were in Scott's other 2021 film, The Last Duel. The filmmaking style is very solid.
(L-R) Jared Leto stars as Paolo Gucci, Florence Andrews as Jenny Gucci, Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci, Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani and Al Pacino as Aldo Gucci in Ridley Scott’s HOUSE OF GUCCI, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
As with all films set in a specific period, it's nice to see music in the film from the '80s. Blondie, The Eurythmics, and George Michael songs ring throughout the film. The entire soundtrack is on point in the film. The score by Harry Gregson Williams is very good as well.
A framing device alludes to an ominous event about to happen at the beginning of the film but doesn't eventually happen until the end. Even though this film and story are based on real events, it's good that Scott and the writers, Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, were able to flesh out the main story of a jilted lover seeking retribution on her husband that she perceived he did wrong. That's a pretty simple story when it's all said and done.
The power struggle between the members of this rich family is another key aspect of the film. As it's said in Wall Street by Gordan Gecko, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." It kind of reminds me of Rome at its height before the fall. Well, maybe a little too much greed isn't good for everybody. A subplot about cheap knock-off bags proves that. The knock-offs were making millions for the family, so who cares if they are being sold as legitimate Gucci bags if the family was getting rich off of them. Some things should be left alone.
House of Gucci was being hailed as an Oscar contender and this year and after seeing it, I have no reason to dissuade those thoughts. This film has brilliant performances from Gaga and Driver, while Leto is crazy good as well. The soundtrack, story, and overall look of the film are all solid. This film has one flaw and it's the length. Some of the meandering scenes of Driver's character could have been cut from the film. That's a small flaw though. Otherwise, this is a solid biopic about the fall of a great fashion designer family.
House of Gucci hits theaters on November 24.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Kevin Hart is considered one of the best comedians in the world. He's entertained millions with his stand-up routine, comedy specials, and movies over the last couple of decades. He usually has this manic style where he talks fast and screams and yells. He acts scared a lot as well in a lot of the movies he's in. That is very different from the character he plays in True Story. He plays it straight in this series. It's a great career choice.
Hart plays a comedian, not a stretch for him obviously. He goes back to his hometown of Philadelphia to do some shows, but that is just the beginning of his homecoming. He reunites with his older brother (Wesley Snipes) who brings more problems to the table than he's worth. Things start to unravel for Hart's character. This series depicts the life of this comedian with more going on than meets the eye.
The series delves into some interesting topics about fandom, family domestic problems, and some popular topics in films dealing with murder and gangsters. It's interesting how the showrunner Eric Newman and writer Cameron Litvack weaved all these topics into this series. Phones come into play a lot as well, capturing thoughts and conversations that help drive the story forward. Social media plays a big part too. Using modern things to help tell the story helps show creativity in the writing process.
Seven episodes is the perfect number to tell this story in as well. It's not too long or too short. The suspense is riveting at times and the episode length of about a half-hour to forty-five minutes long keeps the viewer wondering what's going to happen next, but doesn't drag on too long. The tension is ratcheted up as each episode comes to a close and the next one begins. The showrunners had a great plan going in. It pays off in the end result.
Everybody in the show is all in on the story. The supporting cast from the personal driver to the agent to the joke writers are all terrific. Even the Greek gangsters are entertaining. They all bring an authenticism to the story and series. They all help drive the story and character development forward. The title of True Story almost feels like it could be real. From the comedian aspect to the fanatic aspect, it's as realistic as a story can get. Even the twists and turns are a bit surprising.
A key aspect of the show is sleeping characters. Things happen while people are sleeping in the show. It creates a time-lapse dynamic to the show where characters lose time and don't know what's going on. The viewer gets lost as well at some points, but as the show progresses these story points are revealed and Hart's character's life starts to unravel before the viewer's very eyes.
Netflix has invested in a lot of films and television shows. Their streaming service has become a staple in people's lives and homes. They have doubled down on new and interesting creators and also let established directors and stars develop new fascinating and groundbreaking projects. One of those is True Story. Hart got involved in the right show to expand his career and his range as an actor. His comedian schtick is nowhere in sight in this series and that's a good thing. Netflix and Hart have another hit on their hands. This is a very good show.
True Story streams on Netflix beginning November 24.