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.
8-Bit Christmas (HBO Max)
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Steve Zahn, June Diane Raphael, and Winslow Fegley
Synopsis: ‘Tis the season, and we’re seeing plenty of Christmas content flooding in. While Hallmark has been doing 24-hour-a-day Christmas action in films since October, in the post-Thanksgiving world, everyone is diving in. This one is on HBO Max and finds Harris as a father recounting the tale of his late 1980s quest to get a Nintendo. Fegley plays him in a younger version, while Raphael and Zahn are his parents. The film chronicles a Christmas season spent obsessed with the new gaming device and the lesson learned along the way. This film reminded me of an updated take on A Christmas Story in all the best ways. I enjoyed the narration and work from Harris, while Zahn and Raphael were a delight as the parents. Fegley does a decent job in the lead role and I thought this one hit all the right emotional notes down the stretch. I wasn’t sure what to expect but this was a fun and heart-warming Christmas tale.
Rating: Rated PG for rude humor and some mild violence, language and suggestive references.
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible (Netflix)
Synopsis: This documentary follows mountaineer Nimsdai Purja who attempted the impossible—to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-plus foot mountains in a matter of months. It was a challenge that had never been attempted and many though couldn’t be achieved, but over the course of a film that runs a little over 90 minutes you watch as Purja persists. Titling his group Project Possible, he tackles the mountains and crushes records along the way. This is a tale of belief, adventure and perseverance. Purja makes for an interesting subject and director Torquil Jones is along for the ride, capturing the harrowing tale and the beautiful sights of these mountains. You feel the danger and effort that Purja undertook, pushing himself to achieve this incredible feat, which he did in a bit over six months. This is a fun and engaging documentary, one that captures its subject well and captures the audience attention. It’s worth checking out on Netflix.
Starring: Halle Berry, Adan Canto, Sheila Atim, and Danny Boyd, Jr.
Synopsis: This one finds Berry playing a disgraced MMA fighter who is down on her luck and struggling to carve out a living. About the time her estranged son (Boyd) comes back into her life, she gets another chance to get into the fight game. But to succeed, she has to shed the abusive manager (Canto) who is holding her back and give into the new trainer (Atim) who is trying to put her life and career back on track. Berry takes on the directing duties here, too, and with the timing of the release this is obviously meant to play in the award competition. Sadly, it’s a string of cliches from the fight genre and others that are pulled together in service of a story and a central character that’s not interesting or sympathetic. Berry is just OK in her performance and the rest of the cast feels like they’re just hitting by-the-numbers marks. Even the fight sequences aren’t put together in a very compelling manner, leading to a flat movie that feels like it overstays its welcome with a lengthy run time. This is a miss.
Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content/nudity and violence.
Funny Face (Amazon Prime)
Starring: Cosmo Jarvis, Dela Meskienyar, and Johnny Lee Miller
Synopsis: This simple little film is about a pair of people seeking connection. Saul (Jarvis) is a Knicks fan scratching out a living as he resides with his parents. Zama (Meskienyar) is devoutly religious living with an aunt and uncle who don’t understand. They find each other one night at a bodega and spend a few days helping each other open up and live life, especially as Saul works through his rage connected to a developer (Miller) who is callously planning to bull doze his parents’ home to make another parking lot. This is a slower and at times strange film from writer/director Tim Sutton. It works, when it does, thanks to the on-screen chemistry of Jarvis and Meskienyar. You can’t help but root for them even when you don’t totally understand where it’s going. There are some interesting shots here, too but ultimately the story is a little too disjointed, which holds back the finished product for me.
The Humans (Showtime)
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb, and Jayne Houdyshell
Synopsis: The holidays can be hard, especially when generations of family come together. This drama from playwright Stephen Karam is an interesting character study as three generations gather for Thanksgiving in a small New York apartment. They bring with them all their baggage and issues buried just under the surface that can’t help but seep out over the course of the afternoon and evening. At the same time, the surroundings keep manifesting an outward representation of the leaks and rot that’s plaguing this family as they gather for a meal. The dialogue here is sharp. Karam comes from the theater arena and it’s obvious in the way this film is constructed. At the same time, the performances are engaging enough to keep you hooked and grounded. I was particularly taken with Jenkins and Houdyshell, the middle generation who are dealing with some deep and difficult issues, trying to relate with their children (Feldstein and Schumer) while caring for an aging and mentally diminished parent (Squibb). Jenkins, in particular, seems to be the heart of the film and works well in that role. This is a different kind of film, one that tends toward a horror feel despite the somewhat straightforward narrative. It certainly captures the difficult beauty of gatherings with family around the holidays.
Rating: Rated R for some sexual material and language.
House of Gucci (Theaters)
Starring: Lady Gaga, Al Pacino, Adam Driver, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, and Jack Huston
Synopsis: Ridley Scott is a talented filmmaker who has made a number of engaging films over the years. Earlier this Fall he delivered an engrossing story in The Last Duel. Now, he’s back with another film that has Oscar aspirations in House of Gucci, which chronicles the story of Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga), an Italian woman who marries into the Gucci family. It’s based on the true story, chronicled in the book from Sara Gay Forden, follows Reggiani’s romance with Maurizio Gucci, her influence on the family dynamics and the ultimate breakup of the marriage that led to the fateful end. The film runs more than two and half hours and covers nearly two decades. For as long as the film is, at times the plot feels a bit too condensed. It’s tough to get a feel for when things are happening and it feels like key pieces of information and exchanges are missing. Reportedly the original cut of the film was more than three hours, and perhaps it’s the cuts that damage the storytelling. Additionally, the actors all attempt various Italian accents which feels like a choice that doesn’t always work. Gaga is quite good in her role, and while extremely over-the-top I enjoyed what Leto did in his role. Others feel quite stiff. There was an element of chemistry missing between Gaga and Driver that dampens the efficacy of the film, and Scott largely sidelines Gaga and Leto’s characters in the third act, which weakens the film overall. It’s a big swing and a high-profile swing but it doesn’t always land.
Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief nudity and violence.
Jagged (HBO Max)
Synopsis: The latest in the Music Box series from Bill Simmons takes aim at Alanis Morissette and her mega hit album Jagged Little Pill. The film features interviews with Morissette and others who worked with her and appreciated her artistry. Like the previous installments, it’s a deep dive into her career before making it big and the culture at the time. While it’s drawn some criticism from Morissette for not being the story she wanted to tell, I thought it gave a window into the artist and the creative process, creating a story that I found fascinating and engrossing. I’m enjoying the series so far and can’t wait to see all the installments.
Pig (Hulu, VOD)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Alan Arkin, and Alex Wolff
Synopsis: Sometimes movies aren’t complex. Pig follows a chef (Cage) whose taken himself into seclusion and has one daily companion, a truffle pig. When the pig is taken and he’s assaulted, the Chef comes out of seclusion on a mission to find his friend. It’s a simple story but what helps it work despite an odd premise is the interesting compositions from writer/director Michael Sarnoski. Cage is quite good in the lead role, drawing you into the story and making you care about this journey despite the strange turns of plot. There is some emotional heft to his work that draws you in and elevates what is kind of a thin script. Sarnoski also shows a strong eye at times which makes this interesting but ultimately it’s not a great film despite some of its flourishes. The reason to watch it is Cage, who gives one of his better recent performances.
Rating: Rated R for language and some violence.
Ride the Eagle (Hulu/VOD)
Starring: Jake Johnson, D’Arcy Carden, Susan Sarandon, and J.K. Simmons
Synopsis: This simple little tale is about a man, Leif (Johnson), who goes on a journey thanks to the death of his estranged mother (Sarandon). She leaves him a cabin in the woods, but to keep it he must do some tasks she’s laid out for him as a means of imparting some final wisdom about life. That brings him back in touch with a former flame (Carden) and his mother’s beau (Simmons) as he gets some closure and finally gets to know his mother a bit better. Johnson co-wrote the script with director Trent O’Donnell and clearly feels at home with Leif. I really enjoyed his work in this role, and I loved his exchanges with Carden, who is a pure delight. Simmons and Sarandon are solid as well in a little film that offers plenty of laughs and a little sweet dallop of emotions. I didn’t know much about the film going in but it was a fun and engaging journey, one well worth taking.
Robin Robin (Netflix)
Starring: Bronte Carmichael, Richard E. Grant, and Gillian Anderson
Synopsis: This animated short centers on a Robin (Carmichael) who is raised by a family of mice. The stop-motion animation style is quaint while the story drags a bit. There are some decent voice performers here but the story didn’t really grab me emotionally. It’s not a big commitment as a 28-minute film, but it wasn’t as dynamic or engaging as I’d hoped.
‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas (Apple TV+)
Synopsis: This documentary is about a legal battle over Christmas decorations and a “charity” event that wreaked havoc on a homeowners association in Idaho. Jeremy Morris is a Christmas fanatic and a lawyer who created a holiday event, moved to a new house and instantly clashed with the homeowners’ association. His event and back-and-forth led to a lawsuit and appeals that continue today. The film from director Becky Read lays out the story and showcases the events and back-and-forth. It provides plenty of food for thought and, honestly, it was hard to feel sympathy of either side of the dispute. The holidays are about love and joy, but honestly the trappings of the season often elicit the opposite. This film is a stark reminder of that but it makes for a compelling and interesting watch.
Hallmark Christmas Movie Corner
The Christmas Contest
Starring: Candace Cameron Bure, Barbara Nevin, and John Brotherton
Synopsis: Thanksgiving week is a big one for Hallmark, which usually rolls out a bevy of Christmas movies with some of its biggest stars. It typically has saved the prime Sunday night slot of its brightest star, Cameron Bure. That was the case in 2021, as her new film The Christmas Contest capped a run of seven original films in four days. Sadly, I have plenty to catch up on. But I caught this one following a run of football watching and I was a bit disappointed. This one finds Cameron Bure entering a charity Christmas contest hosted by a Denver Radio station. There she finds she’s competing against a former flame (Brotherton) and sparks fly yet again. Nevin slides in as her mother and this one had a few moments but wasn’t one of the best stories crafted for Cameron Bure. It was OK, light and entertaining but just an average Hallmark offering.
A Kiss Before Christmas
Starring: Terri Hatcher and James Denton
Synopsis: This film finds Ethan (Denton) as a developer with limited professional success but a great wife (Hatcher) and family. He finds himself wishing he’d made a different choice years earlier to advance his career and thanks to a little magic, he’s transported to an alternate world where he made that choice. He finds he’s enjoying great professional success there but he’s alone. The question is whether he can put the pieces back together to return him to his real life and family by Christmas Eve, impressing his boss (Marilu Henner) along the way. I’ll give you three guesses as to how it turns out. The hook here is Hatcher and Denton playing opposite one another, as they did on Desperate Housewives. Aside from that, it’s a plot we’ve seen many times. It follows a by-the-numbers formula and comes out OK. It wasn’t incredibly memorable but it was watchable.
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.