Here’s a look at the new films I saw this week, including the Hallmark Christmas Movie Corner. If you’d like to see more of my scores for films and thoughts, feel free to follow me on Letterboxd here.
Starring: Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench, Caitriona Balfe, and Jude Hill
Synopsis: Belfast is a drama that figures to be a major player this awards season. Coming from director Kenneth Branagh, this is a personal tale of a family struggling to find a way forward amidst financial hardship and violence in Belfast in 1969. Buddy (Hill) is a young boy living with his family in the only home he’s ever known. He soon finds himself in the middle of a violent clash between Catholics and protestants. His parents (Balfe and Dornan) have lived in Belfast all their lives, too, but they worry about the future. His father (Dornan) works a trade, spending his weeks and every other weekend in England to earn a living wage. His mother (Balfe) tries to keep the household in order and desperately wants to keep the family in Belfast, but is it possible? This is a beautiful tale of people trying to make their way in the world. At the close, Branagh dedicates it to those who stayed, those who left and those who were lost. It’s a film that lays out the challenges of a time and place and keeps you invested in this family. Dench and Hines play the grandparents, an older generation that faced the same struggles and now is trying to support their family through these turbulent times. I loved the performance of all four veteran actors. I was particularly moved by Balfe and Dornan, while Dench gives one of the most heart-rending scenes near the close. Hill is the glue that holds the plot together and he does a great job. The joy and innocence on his face were a treasure. I loved the framing in the film and the emotional depth of the story. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking, one of the year’s best.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language.
Clifford the Big Red Dog (Theaters/Paramount+)
Starring: Darby Camp, Izaac Wang, Jack Whitehall, Sienna Guillory, and Tony Hale
Synopsis: The classic children’s books come to the big screen (or small screen if you catch it at home). Clifford’s journey was delayed, but the film finally released on November 10 in theaters and streaming the same day. This one finds a misfit named Emily (Camp) who stumbles on a red puppy offered for adoption by a kind old many (John Cleese). He tells Emily the dog will grow as big as her love. Turns out Emily loves Clifford quite a bit, causing him to balloon up to epic proportions literally overnight. His size catches the eye of a scheming scientist (Hale) while Emily, her friend Owen (Wang) and her uncle (Whitehall) try to keep Clifford safe. This one has some adorable visuals and a decent story. It’s a bit of light-hearted family entertainment that offers some laughs and some cute moments, capturing the joy of the books. It’s not particularly deep, but the cast does a nice job. Camp, who had the lead in the Netflix films The Christmas Chronicles, does well in the lead here. This one isn’t complex but it’s a nice, light watch that’s good for audiences of all ages.
Rating: Rated PG for impolite humor, thematic elements and mild action.
Home Sweet Home Alone (Disney+)
Starring: Archey Yates, Ellie Kemper, Rob Delaney, and Kenan Thompson
Synopsis: The original Home Alone, released more than 30 years ago, is a classic. It’s led to a lengthy franchise, which featured four sequels. The fifth sequel—sixth film overall—Home Sweet Home Alone dropped Friday as part of Disney+ Day. It wasn’t worth the wait or the hype. This film sees a boy named (Max) who meets a couple (Delaney and Kemper) during an Open House. At his own home, his extended family is in, making things chaotic as they prepare to head to Tokyo for the holidays. Seeking solitude and peace, Max shuffles into the garage and falls asleep in the family car. His family leaves him behind by mistake, and suddenly he’s home alone. Meanwhile the couple discover a priceless doll missing and assume Max lifted it. Believing the family to be out of the home, they head over to retrieve it, creating a misunderstanding that leads to a confrontation. I love the original film but this doesn’t hold up. The story is a bit tough and the character of Max isn’t sympathetic. Kemper and Delaney are OK but this feels like a mediocre attempt to cash in on the popular franchise. It’s skippable.
Rating: Rated PG for slapstick violence, rude material and some language.
Mayor Pete (Amazon Prime)
Synopsis: This new documentary takes us back to the campaign trail with Pete Buttigeig, otherwise known as Mayor Pete, as he ran for the Democratic Party nomination for President in 2020. It shows his campaign and features interviews with him and his husband, Chasten. Mayor Pete was one of the more interesting candidates during the early days of the campaign and this gives a unique view of his platform and experience, offering a peek behind the curtains. Was this released closer to the time he was on the trail it might have hit differently; however, it feels like the campaign’s early days—in 2019—were a long time ago. I also wished the documentary would have explored his story and stances a little further, especially given that the campaign took place a long time ago. The idea here was sound and the filmmaking is OK but it didn’t feel like a compelling take on the subject.
Rating: Rated R for language.
Starring: Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, and Andre Holland
Synopsis: This film debuted earlier this year at festivals and now makes its wide release on Netflix. It’s the directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall, based on the novel from Nella Larsen. It centers on two women (Negga and Thompson) who were childhood friends that reunite as adults by chance at hotel café in New York. Both women are light skinned but live very different lives. Irene (Thompson) lives as a black woman, married to a doctor (Holland) in Harlem. Clare (Negga), passes as white, married to a racist businessman (Alexander Skarsgard) who has no idea of the secret his wife is hiding. The chance meeting rekindles the connection, as Clare spends her free time while her husband is on business with Irene and her husband, ingratiating herself in their lives and community. All of it stirs up feelings in both women and threatens the secret upon which Clare has built her life. This is a difficult subject that makes for an intriguing film. Hall shoots in black and white, which gives it a great look that adds to the period setting. What stands out here are the performances, particularly Thompson and Negga. There is a lot of depth to their work and I found that compelling. While I didn’t love the film as much as some, I was moved by the story and the work of these two actresses. For a first feature, I thought Hall showed a strong eye for crafting a story and getting the most out of her cast, handling a difficult subject and story with a deft hand.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some racial slurs and smoking.
Red Notice (Netflix)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot
Synopsis: The other big release for Netflix is the action-comedy Red Notice, which got a limited theatrical run ahead of its November 12 streaming release on the platform. The film centers on a thief (Reynolds) who is caught red-handed by an FBI Profiler (Johnson) thanks to a tip from a rival thief (Gadot). Soon, The Bishop (Gadot) flips the tables on both Agent Hartley (Johnson) and Booth (Reynolds), forcing them to team up in order to thwart her and clear their names. This one is a fun spy versus spy type of film with exotic locations, plenty of clever action sequences and a dash of humor. Johnson, Reynolds and Gadot are good performers who have good chemistry here. There are a few fun twists and some fun set pieces, too. This one isn’t particularly deep and it isn’t an incredible film, but it feels like a bit of a fun ride. It’s well worth checking out as an escape.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and action, some sexual references, and strong language.
Hallmark Christmas Movies
Starring: Merritt Patterson and Jon-Michael Ecker
Synopsis: This one finds a lawyer (Patterson) living at home and looking for some future direction. She gets a new job helping sell a famous bakery, which brings her in connection with a former almost flame (Ecker), also a lawyer. Both are forced to consider their potential relationship and also what to do with their careers. Sparks fly… sort of. This one has a familiar set up and it’s fine but wasn’t that compelling. I wasn’t sold on the primary love affair and I thought the production was a bit dry at times. Not one of the better films this season.
My Christmas Family Tree
Starring: Aimee Teegarden, Andrew Walker and James Tupper
Synopsis: Very rarely do I find a Hallmark movie that offers a plot I find surprising. This one felt a bit fresh and new, focusing on Vanessa (Teegarden), a woman whose mother passed that never knew her father or had a family. She takes an ancestry test and, surprisingly, finds a paternal match. Said match is Richard (Tupper), also got the same results and is eager to meet his daughter despite having another family of his own. The two meet and agree to spend Christmas together, with Vanessa getting a ride from the city courtesy of a family friend, Kris (Walker). Sparks fly between Kris and Vanessa, and she finds the family she’s always wanted, but is it too good to be true? This one had an interesting story and a solid cast. I liked the way it played out and it had a double twist, which I correctly guessed, that was fun. The chemistry between the leads worked and the idea was interesting, as long as you didn’t think about it too deeply!
Open By Christmas
Starring: Alison Sweeney, Erica Durance, and Brenna Elliott
Synopsis: In this film, Nicky (Sweeney) was a girl that didn’t know love in her life. When she finds an unopened card from a secret admirer in an old high school text book, it sets her on a search to discover who might have left it and whether she can find a love connection. Her friend Simone (Durance) assists the search, while she also connects with an old classmate, Derrick (Elliott). This one has a predictable path and wasn’t an incredibly interesting journey. Durance, Sweeney and Elliott make it work OK but that’s all this one is—OK. You can probably guess from the plot description how it’s going to turn out.
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.