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: Geraldine Viswanathan and Karan Soni
Synopsis: We’re well into the pandemic and it continues to offer stories for the big and small screen. This new comedy steers into that idea, also exploring the culture of arranged marriages. It centers on a man (Soni) and woman (Viswanathan) set up by their Indian parents on a date in March 2020. As the world descends into a lock down, these two find themselves forced to share an apartment, greatly speeding up the process of getting to know each other. What at first seems like a total miss turns into something else over the course of seven days. This film, co-written by Soni and director Roshan Sethi, has appeared at some festivals but is due for a wide release in 2022. It touches on a lot of subjects but what I enjoyed was the humor and the chemistry between Soni and Viswanathan, who co-star in the TBS sitcom Miracle Workers. They worked well together, creating a story that felt fun and different. I enjoyed the experience a lot and think this is worth seeking out, especially for comedy fans.
The Beta Test (VOD)
Starring: Jim Cunningham, Virginia Newcomb, and PJ McCabe
Synopsis: The film focuses on an engaged Hollywood agent (Cunningham) who receives an anonymous letter inviting him to a sexual encounter with a stranger. He goes and it quickly leads him down a dangerous rabbit hole that threatens his work, his relationship and his sanity. This is a fairly out there concept that features some interesting dialogue and performances. I was curious about the film after reading the description but I wasn’t taken with the production or performances. In fact, I found it off-putting for the most part. The plot and characters didn’t land and this felt like a bit of a slog. In fact, the main character is wholly unlikeable to the point I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take away from this story, which felt like it wanted to make some kind of point about the industry. This one is safely skipped.
A Castle for Christmas (Netflix)
Starring: Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes
Synopsis: The onslaught of Netflix Christmas content continues with this romantic comedy that finds an author (Shields) struggling as a single woman during the holidays. In addition, a creative decision in her last novel wasn’t well received, so she heads to Scotland for a break, and to connect with her family roots. There, she comes across a prickly Duke (Elwes) whose financial position leaves him needing to sell his family castle. She wants to buy it; he wants to drive her crazy and sparks fly just in time for Christmas. This feels like the kind of thing you’d see on Hallmark, which isn’t a bad thing. However, the characters and the story here are just mostly a shoulder shrug. It hits a lot of predictable notes but lacks some of the heart and charm needed to make this kind of by-the-numbers plot work. This feels like a decent idea that falls a bit flat.
DMX: Don’t Try to Understand (HBO Max)
Synopsis: This is the third entry in the Music Box documentary series for HBO Max, this one focusing on the late rapper DMX during a pivotal year at the end of his life. DMX is just out of prison, looking to re-connect with his family, re-start his career and survive an upcoming tour. The documentary, like others in the series, is a mix of file footage and interviews. It does a nice job of following the subject but it didn’t feel as resonate or compelling as the previous entries in the series. I was curious to learn more about DMX, which this does accomplish, but it felt like it was missing some of the rich emotional connection inspired by the previous entries. It’s OK, not great.
Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, and Jessica Darrow
Synopsis: The latest from Disney animation is a beautifully crafted tale about a family on the run given a magical blessing that built a house and a town for them, bestowing each member of the Madrigal family with a magical power. Well, almost every member of the family. Mirabel (Beatriz) wasn’t given a gift, and it leaves her feeling like an outsider. When events threaten her family home and their gift, it’s up to Mirabel to get to the cause and try to save the magic. This beautifully crafted tale features original songs crafted by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I loved the music and I loved how it complimented this story, which builds very interesting characters and draws you into the emotional heart of the narrative. I loved Mirabel’s journey, and I loved the performance from Beatriz. Also great is Leguizamo as her crazy and conflicted uncle Bruno. This one had a lot of heart and a beautiful presentation. It’s my favorite animated tale of the year so far and one that I hope gets some love come awards season.
Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril.
Flee (Limited Release)
Synopsis: This one checks a lot of boxes. It’s a documentary, a foreign language film and done in an animated style. It’s drawn a great deal of critical praise since debuting at festivals and figures to be a serious awards contender in a number of categories. The film, from director Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells the story of Amin, a gay man who shares the secrets of his childhood in Afghanistan in the 1980s and how he fled to Denmark. The story is engaging and powerful, touching on issues of oppression and the difficulties of immigration. The style of the storytelling is also unique, blending file footage and occasional live action with animation to tell Amin’s story through interviews and interactions. It’s a crisp 90 minutes and showcases the cinematic style of Rasmussen. It’s a well-crafted film that is worth checking out. I didn’t have as strong an emotional reaction to the story as others, but I appreciated the unique craft that went into the presentation.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, disturbing images and strong language.
Last Night in Soho (Theaters, VOD)
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Thomasin McKenzie, and Diana Rigg
Synopsis: Edgar Wright delivers a thriller with Soho, which opened in late October. The film centers on a young fashion student (McKenzie), obsessed with 1960s fashion and music. After renting a room in Soho, she begins seeing visions of a young singer (Taylor-Joy) and her abusive manager (Smith), which leads her to a grim discovery. This is a unique film in style and execution. Some of the elements early in the film work quite well, and I enjoyed the performance from McKenzie and Taylor-Joy. But the final act of the film features a twist that will probably determine your overall feeling for the narrative. I didn’t buy into it. In fact, I thought the final few moments were strangely uncompelling despite some nice casting a moody visuals provided by Wright. It’s an ambitious swing that had its moments but overall fell short in execution for me.
Rating: Rated R for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material and brief graphic nudity.
The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodit Smit-McPhee
Synopsis: This film comes from writer/director Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage. It follows two brothers, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons), who run a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925. Phil is gregarious but cruel, while George is reserved and kind. When the two run across a young innkeeper (Dunst), Phil treats her and her son (Smit-McPhee) poorly. But George is kind and becomes smitten. Soon the two marry and he brings her back to his ranch. While Phil continues to bully the woman, he becomes fond of her son and takes him under his wing. This is a slow moving and beautifully shot film. It earned rave reviews at festival screenings and figures to be one of a handful of Netflix films pushing for awards season gold. It shines when it does thanks to the strong performances, particularly Cumberbatch, who dominates all his scenes. The story is slow, painfully so at times, but Campion captures the look of the period in sometimes beautiful sequences. The rest of the cast is solid as well but I felt the third act was a bit rushed at the ending. Overall, it’s a solid, engaging and thought-provoking journey.
Rating: Rated R for brief sexual content/full nudity.
Werewolves Within (VOD)
Starring: Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, and Michela Watkins
Synopsis: This little horror/comedy is an adaptation of a video game about werewolves attacking a small town. At the center of the mystery is a new ranger (Richardson) and the town’s postal employee (Vayntrub). When people start turning up dead, it’s a race to figure out what’s going on in time to survive. This one has a fun premise and a great blend of horror and comedy, as director Josh Ruben delivers a fun little film. I loved Richardson in the lead role and greatly appreciated his timing and reactions to the craziness brewing around him. Vayntrub, probably best recognized from the AT&T commercials, does a great job, too. She and Richardson have delightful comedic timing in a movie that’s a fun watch.
Rating: Rated R for some bloody violence, sexual references and language throughout.
Women is Losers (HBO Max)
Starring: Lorena Izzo, Simu Liu, Liza Weil, and Bryan Craig
Synopsis: Writer/director Lissette Feliciano delivers a tale set in 1960s San Francisco that follows a young woman (Izzo) who gets pregnant and overcomes an abusive home situation, a deadbeat baby daddy (Craig) and the general oppression that comes with being a woman of color to build a life for herself and her child. That includes raising enough money to find a way to build a house of her own. Feliciano delivers a script that crackles and a story that pulls you in and tugs at the heartstrings. That’s also thanks to Izzo, who delivers a beautiful lead performance. I was captivated by her on screen and couldn’t help but root for her to succeed in this story that looks at a lot of issues while delivering humor and heart. The ending is beautiful, too. This is a little film that you should make a point to seek out and enjoy.
Hallmark Christmas Movies
Christmas at Castle Hart
Starring: Lacey Chabert, Stuart Townsend and Ali Hardiman
Synopsis: I only got in one Hallmark film this week, and it happened to be the one about the castle, watched directly after the Netflix castle film. This film starred Chabert, one of the Hallmark gold stars. She is a catering company waitress who, along with her sister (Hardiman), is fired and decides to head to Ireland to explore her family roots. There, she crosses paths with Aiden Hart (Townsend), who needs help planning the big Christmas party. Her sister lies and says she’s a famous New York party planner and they land the job. Can she pull it off, keep the secret and find romance? It’s Hallmark, so you already know the answer. This one was fairly cute and felt like a better use of a European castle. The family element is solid, too. Chabert is one of the best at these on Hallmark for a reason. This wasn’t my favorite of her films, but it was some sturdy entertainment.
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.
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