Welcome to this weekly column where I drop reviews of all the new films I’ve seen this week. It includes both theatrical and streaming releases. I note in the title where you can find it. In addition, I have my recurring feature during the Holiday Season where I look at the new Hallmark Christmas films I’ve seen that week. You’re welcome! Films appear in alphabetical order, with the Hallmark section at the end. Brace yourself, I saw a lot this week.
If you’d like to see more of my scores for films and thoughts, feel free to follow me on Letterboxd here.
Diana: The Musical (Netflix)
Starring: Jeanna de Waal, Ron Hartrampf, and Judy Kaye
Synopsis: This Netflix offering, which dropped a few weeks back, is a filmed version of the Broadway musical based on the life of Princess Diana. Yes, you read that correctly. It features de Waal in the lead as Diana, with Hartrampf as Prince Charles and Kaye as the Queen. It tells the story, from their courtship through to the end, adding in lavish musical numbers. It’s all, well, a little much. The production values were fine, but the plot feels a bit over-the-top. It’s also creepy and awkward. I can’t imagine how people will feel about seeing this on Broadway, but the filmed version was more than enough for me.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for strong language and for suggestive and thematic material.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Amazon Prime)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, and Andrea Riseborough
Synopsis: This biopic debuted at festivals and had a short theatrical run before landing on Amazon. It centers on the life of Wain (Cumberbatch), an artist and illustrator living in England in the 19th Century. He fell in love with Emily Richardson (Foy), who was governess to his sisters. She was much older than Wain, which made their relationship a bit taboo. They married and enjoyed a great love affair before her death. In the wake of that setback, Wain turned to his art with his depiction of cats catching the world by storm before his fractured mental state led him to be institutionalized. The film pays tribute to Wain’s live and work, chronicling his relationship with Emily and the struggles that plagued him and his family. Cumberbatch is solid in the lead role and the visuals are fun at times. I enjoyed his back-and-forth with Foy in the first half of the film but on the whole this felt uneven. It’s OK but not great.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material and strong language.
Starring: Richard Madden, Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harrington, Lia McHugh, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, and Ma Dong-seok
Synopsis: The latest entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has created quite a stir. It’s a different kind of story focusing on a much different kind of heroes. It wasn’t greeted warmly by critics and soon earned the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes of any MCU film before even being released to the public. It still made money and still has a decent public score, but it’s perhaps the most polarizing blockbuster since Rian Johnson gave the world Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi. The film comes from Chloe Zhao, who just won an Academy Award for her direction of the beautiful drama Nomadland. This is a different kind of MCU film. The characters and the story are different and so, too, is the visual style. This is a beautiful and sweeping film with a complex narrative and a lot of new characters. It focuses on the Eternals, a group of immortal beings sent to Earth centuries ago to protect its people from the Deviants, working at the behest of the Celestials, immortal beings endowed with the power to create worlds. I appreciated the narrative and the characters here. I was taken with the rich performances, particularly from Madden and Chan in the lead roles. This wasn’t my favorite MCU film and it is slow at times, but it’s far from the film that critics made it out to be. I enjoyed the ride and I am curious to see where the characters introduced here go next.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality.
Father Christmas is Back (Netflix)
Starring: Kelsey Grammer, John Cleese, Elizabeth Hurley, Nathalie Cox, Talulah Riley, Naomi Frederick, Carolyn Bowlby, Caroline Quentin, Ray Fearon, and Kris Marshall
Synopsis: ‘Tis the season for Christmas films and Netflix plans to rival Hallmark and Lifetime for the number of holiday-themed projects that it offers. This weekend alone saw a couple of Christmas movie releases, including Father Christmas is Back. This comedy is about the Christmas family, who welcome back the father they haven’t seen in 27 years. Yes, the title is a pun. Yes, it’s as bad a pun as you think. Anyway, this film sees four adult daughters (Hurley, Cox, Riley and Frederick), their mother (Quentin), their significant others (Fearon and Marshall) and their uncle (Cleese) welcoming the father that left them 27 years earlier, on Christmas, Grammer, and his new, much younger girlfriend (Bowlby). They all come together for a few wild days at the family home in England, and hilarity ensues. That’s the formula we’ve seen used time and again, so the plot for this kind of film isn’t as important as the richness of the characters. From that standpoint, Father Christmas is Back works OK. It’s odd and awkward at times. It’s slow at times despite being just an hour and 45 minutes. And yet, there are some fun moments and fun performances. When you have veteran actors like Grammer, Cleese and Hurley you are going to get something better than your average cable original. This one isn’t great but it was festive and comes with the expected happy ending that works.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexually suggestive material and some language.
Finch (Apple TV+)
Starring: Tom Hanks and Caleb Landry Jones
Synopsis: There is perhaps no actor in history better at working with inanimate objects and forging an emotional connection than Hanks. That makes him the ideal candidate to lead Finch, the latest original film for Apple TV+. It’s set in the future where a major event has destroyed the ozone layer, rendering the surface of the Earth inhospitable, destroying vegetation and greatly reducing the population. Those who are left, like Finch Weinberg (Hanks), are forced to forge for supplies so they can survive. Finch manages to build an artificial being, Jeff (Landry Jones), who is there to help Finch and his treasured companion, a dog named Goodyear. When a massive storm threatens where they’re staying in St. Louis, Finch, Jeff and Goodyear hit the road, headed toward hopefully better options on the coast of California. This film, from veteran TV director Miguel Sapochnik, features some interesting visuals and a touching performance from Hanks, who does a lot of heavy lifting with his co-stars a CGI robot and a dog. I enjoyed the narrative and thought it was an interesting and engaging film. It’s not as great as some of the original offerings from Apple TV+ but I thought this was a sturdy addition to the streamers library.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief violent images.
The French Dispatch (Theaters)
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Lea Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Timothee Chalamet, Owen Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright
Synopsis: At this stage in his career, audiences know what to expect from a Wes Anderson film. The filmmaker has his own unique style of writing, building characters and crafting a cinematic world. From that standpoint, The French Dispatch fits that model perfectly. It’s a unique spin, featuring several self-contained stories within a larger narrative about a small paper in France releasing its final issue in the wake of the death of its editor and founder (Murray). I greatly enjoyed the idea and the presentation. This one features a loaded cast, a fraction of which I listed above. Each of the individual stories was fascinating and put together this one has a great deal of charm. It’s a clever film with a style of humor that won’t appeal to everyone. I found it a delight but I didn’t have the audible laughs that some in my screening did. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciated the creativity and craft. No one tells stories quite like Anderson and if you’re a fan of that style, this will hit home for you. I appreciated many of the performances, particularly the work of McDormand, Swinton and Wright as the lead reporters telling each of the long-form stories contained within the larger narrative. I enjoyed seeing Murray pop up to cap each narrative with an interaction with the storyteller as well. Overall, I enjoyed this quite a bit and think it will be a joy for Anderson’s many fans.
Rating: Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language.
The Harder They Fall (Netflix)
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, and Delroy Lindo
Synopsis: This new western had a theatrical run before landing on Netflix. It is based on real outlaws Nat Love (Majors) and Rufus Buck (Elba) and their gangs, along with famous lawman Bass Reeves (Lindo). This one features a conflict between the gangs that comes to a head with an epic showdown, per the expectation of the genre. While the story might unfold as expected, the rest of this production feels like a fun and fresh take on the western. Co-writer/director Jeymes Samuel does a great job of bringing these characters and this story to life. I loved the stylistic approach, the dialogue and the rich performances. It was a great production that’s a heck of a ride and a lot of fun. I particularly loved the work of Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, who delivers some of the most fun dialogue, particularly in an early sequence while robbing a train. Majors is solid in the lead role and Elba makes a great villain as well. This is a good film, one of the best westerns I’ve seen in a while. It’s well worth checking out.
Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language.
Land (HBO Max)
Starring: Robin Wright and Demian Bichir
Synopsis: This drama, which Wright stars in and directed, was released toward the tail end of 2020. It’s finally made its way to streaming, debuting on HBO on Saturday night before landing on HBO Max. It centers on a woman (Wright) who is lost in the midst of grief. Unable to find a way forward in the real world, she retreats to live in solitude in the mountains, cut off. There, she runs into trouble until a passerby (Bichir) finds her, helps her heal and helps her find her way. He, too, is struggling with grief. Together, they find a friendship that helps them cope with the past so they can move forward. Wright has long been an impressive performer but she plies her skill to directing here, offering a simple and heart-felt story of grief, loss and moving on. She and Bichir give beautiful and warm performances in a story that runs a crisp 89 minutes but packs plenty into its presentation. I was deeply moved by the performances and the story, while appreciating the cinematic shots she uses to capture the isolation and beauty of her mountain location. This is a drama well worth seeking out.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, brief strong language, and partial nudity.
Love Hard (Netflix)
Starring: Nina Dobrev, Jimmy O. Yang, and Harry Shum, Jr.
Synopsis: This is the second of the Netflix live-action Christmas movies released last weekend, and it’s by far the better of the two. This one is a romantic comedy that feels like it plays by the Hallmark Christmas movie playbook. It centers on an L.A. Girl (Dobrev) who has been unlucky in love. In fact, she’s been so spectacularly unsuccessful she’s built a successful writing career about sharing the tales of dates gone wrong. She turns to a dating app and seems to find the perfect guy. Sure she’s found love, Natalie (Dobrev) takes a shot and flies to the East Coast for Christmas to surprise her online crush. She ends up getting surprised when he (Yang) turns out to be someone different, and she’s been catfished as part of an experiment. Things take some twists from there but could it turn out to be love after all? These films don’t thrive on the plot, which you could probably correctly guess from the trailer. They thrive on the characters and performances. From that standpoint, Love Hard worked for me. Dobrev and Yang had a fun chemistry and the humor injected in the film was enough to make it a holiday delight for me. It ends up where you’d want but it’s a fun ride along the way. This was the most pleasant surprise I had watching films this week.
Son of Monarchs (HBO Max)
Starring: Tenoch Huerta
Synopsis: This one centers on a Mexican biologist living in New York returns to his hometown, nestled in the majestic butterfly forests of Michoacán. The journey forces him to look at his life, confront his past, make peace with the family he left behind and find a way forward. It leads to a personal metamorphosis that dovetails nicely with the butterflies he researches and serve as the visual metaphor for this film. It was released on November 2 on HBO Max and is available to stream. I was taken with the idea and I thought there were some decent performances, particularly from Huerta. That being said, this felt a bit disjointed for me. The pieces of something interesting were there but it didn’t all fit together as I would have hoped or expected. It was OK but failed to rise to the level of great or compelling.
Rating: Rated R for language.
The Sparks Brothers (Netflix)
Synopsis: This documentary from director Edgar Wright focuses on the life, inspiration, music and career of brothers Ron and Russell Mael. The film debuted earlier this year and has made it to Netflix to stream. I enjoyed the approach taken by Wright, who explored the brothers’ lives and inspirations, tracing their lengthy musical career. It includes interesting interviews and a number of their songs. I didn’t know much about them prior to seeing this, though I’d been fascinated by their work as the creative force behind the Amazon film Annette, released earlier this Fall. This is a documentary that moves at a good pace, has a unique style and presents the story of its subjects with heart. I enjoyed checking it out.
Rating: Rated R for language
Starring: Kristen Stewart
Synopsis: The latest from director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) is a biopic of sorts focusing on another tragic historical figure, Princess Diana (Stewart). The film, which runs about two hours, is set during a Christmas weekend in the 1990s. Diana is under intense media scrutiny and struggling with her life and identity, particularly struggling with Charles’ affair and whether she should continue in her role as wife and Princess. The script from Steven Knight isn’t so much a straight narrative as an exploration of larger themes grounded in the experience of this weekend. As it notes, the film is meant to be a fable conceived of a true tragedy, which was the story of Diana’s life. Some have been amazed by this film and the approach but it didn’t work for me. I found the score a distraction and the visual style a bit disconnected from the story. Those that are seeking a more conventional biopic will likely be thrown by the narrative and style here. Stewart has drawn praise for her performance, which I thought was fine. However, I struggled at times to separate the performance and the character from the performer. Overall, I found Spencer to be something of a disappointment, one that made me feel uneasy about the bold positions taken about the mental state of its subject, especially given what that might mean for her children.
Rating: Rated R for some language.
Starring: Colman Domingo, Riley Keough, and Taylour Paige
Synopsis: This drama is one of the wildest stories I’ve seen. It was taken from a string of Tweets and adapted into a film focusing on a waitress named Zola (Paige) recruited by an exotic dancer (Keough) and her pimp (Domingo) for a wild trip to Florida. It’s really the story of how Zola and Stefani (Keough) “fell out.” I can see why it was good fodder for a film, and I’ll praise the unique approach from co-writer/director Janicza Bravo. I also appreciated the way the three leads totally committed to these wild characters and story. Domingo, in particular, was a lot of fun. But sometimes movies don’t work for you and this one really didn’t work for me. I thought the story was over-the-top and gross. I found it borderline offensive at times and was completely turned off by the narrative and the direction the story takes. That was enough for it to be a complete bomb for me. It’s one of the worst films I’ve seen this year. Others have enjoyed it but I just couldn’t get there.
Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence including a sexual assault.
Hallmark Christmas Movies:
Starring: Terry O’Quinn, Katee Sackhoff, Emma Oliver and Patrick Sabongui
Synopsis: Hallmark has a few tried and true formulas we see each year. Christmas Sail falls into that category, offering its own spin. This one is about a woman (Sackhoff) and her daughter (Oliver) who head home for Christmas after her father (O’Quinn) is in an accident. The two are estranged, largely because of how the death of her mother, and her father’s response to it, pushed her away. While in town, she enters a traditional competition with the help of a former flame (Sabongui) to earn enough money to save her father’s house. And, sparks fly. This one added the wrinkle of it being a nautical parade and featured some high-profile performers with Sackhoff and O’Quinn that you don’t typically see in Hallmark films. It had a decent enough narrative and the actors made it work. In lesser hands this would have been something of a slog but I enjoyed it for what it was.
Next Stop Christmas
Starring: Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Lyndsy Fonseca and Chandler Massey
Synopsis: I’m a sucker for a good time travel tale, and this film not only provides that set up but nabs Back to the Future alums Lloyd and Thompson. I’m all in. This actually turned out to be one of the better offerings so far in 2021, nearly unseating the current belt holder from Danica McKellar. This one finds a successful doctor (Fonseca) who gets a chance to fill the romantic void in her life as she’s transported back 10 years thanks to a magical conductor (Lloyd). There, she thinks she’s supposed to say yes to “the one that got away” but it might actually be the boy next door (Massey) that’s the right answer. Fonseca was great in this film and had great chemistry with Massey. The humor hit the right note and the supporting roles from Lloyd and Thompson took it over-the-top. This was one I got excited about after seeing the trailer and it delivered as expected.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.