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.
Adrienne (HBO Max)
Synopsis: The story of actress Adrienne Shelley is a tragedy. She was murdered by a thief in her apartment office just before achieving one of her biggest career successes with the film Waitress. At first, her death appeared to be a suicide but her husband, Andy Ostroy knew it couldn’t be true. He pushed authorities to investigate and found justice for his wife and his then-two-year-old daughter. In the new documentary, Adrienne, Ostroy shares the story of himself, his daughter and Shelley’s family as they come to terms with her loss and explore her legacy years later. It’s a loving tribute to her as a performer, but more importantly it focuses on what she brought to her family as a loving wife, mother and daughter. It’s at times quite poignant, including when Ostroy confronts the man who murdered his wife in prison. It’s a beautifully shot and crafted film, one that celebrates the life that was lost and those who continue to mourn her loss.
Synopsis: Another documentary, this one focusing on the 1970s prison uprising at Attica in New York. This film tells the story through file footage and interviews with former prisoners and the family of those taken hostage, as well as those who were part of the efforts to re-take the facility. It ended up being one of the most violent incidents in history as 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were killed when authorities stormed the facility. This film powerfully captures the incident and the period in which it took place, showcasing those involved and the reasons it happened. It’s a fascinating and informative look at this historical event.
Becoming Cousteau (Disney+)
Synopsis: This documentary from Liz Garbus looks at the life, work and legacy of the great ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. Through a mixture of file footage, interviews and narratives, the film explores Cousteau’s life, legacy and his passion for the Earth. It’s an interesting exploration of a man that many have heard about but might not be as familiar with now. I thought it was an interesting idea but at times the film was a bit too dry.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some disturbing images and smoking.
A Boy Called Christmas (Netflix)
Starring: Henry Lawfull, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Michiel Huisman, Kristen Wiig, and Toby Jones
Synopsis: This film adds to the library of Christmas content on Netflix, which has become robust in recent years. This one is another origin story for Christmas, of sorts, centered on a boy named Nicholas (Lawfull) who travels to a secret Elf village in search of his father. Instead, he finds the spirit of hope and joy in Christmas, returning to his people with gifts to lift their spirits. This one follows the path of The Princess Bride, with Aunt Ruth (Smith) telling the tale to a trio of eager listeners. The cast is solid and the story mostly works. It’s not incredible but it was an enjoyable little Christmas tale that’s well told.
Rating: Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements.
The Card Counter (VOD)
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe
Synopsis: The latest from writer/director Paul Schrader is about a former solider (Isaac) who is scratching out a living counting cards. He’d done time as a result of actions while he was in the service, working on behalf of a corrupt officer (Dafoe). He comes across a young man (Sheridan) whose father had similarly served and who is seeking revenge. Meanwhile, William just wants to count cards and make it to the World Series of Poker, using the help of a backer (Haddish) with whom he soon forges a deeper connection. This one plays like a serious drama aiming to be an awards season player but it simply didn’t work. I like Isaac, and he’s fine here but it’s in service of a story that’s oddly constructed and even more oddly laid out. I’m not sure what I was supposed to take from this but it was a complete misfire creatively. There were some early moments that seemed promising but quickly went off the rails leading to a final act that seemed simply absurd.
Rating: Rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality.
C’Mon C’Mon (Theaters)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, and Woody Norman
Synopsis: The latest from writer/director Mike Mills centers on Johnny (Phoenix), a radio journalist who gets a request from his estranged sister (Hoffman) to come and stay with her son (Norman) while she has to head to Northern California to care for the boy’s mentally ill father (Scoot McNairy). He consents and finds that it becomes a journey toward friendship with his young nephew, a journey toward healing with his sister, and a journey toward deeper self-reflection for himself. Phoenix delivers a strong and beautiful performance as Johnny, and I was quite taken with Hoffman as his sister, Viv. This is a different kind of storytelling, one with stories within a story as Mills unfolds this journey, shot in beautiful black-and-white that moves from Detroit to Los Angeles, New York and finally New Orleans. The cities become a part of the narrative, as Mills showcases different locations as Johnny and Jesse explore different places, working out bigger issues in life along the way. This is a beautifully told story with heart that figures to be a player as the year draws to a close. Some of it didn’t land as well with me as intended, but I still appreciated the journey.
Rating: Rated R for language.
Synopsis: Another documentary, this one focused on three teen girls in Texas going through the summer. The film, from directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill, captures what it’s like for these girls growing up in a small military town. It’s presented warts and all, which gives the audience plenty to consider about what teens are doing and seeing today. And yet, the film doesn’t feel like it offers much beyond the cliches and an intimate look at the experience of these girls. It’s compelling in some ways but feels like it doesn’t achieve much by the end. I came away with some thoughts and concerns about today’s youth but little context about the town and the world for these ladies, and how it connects to the larger world. It feels a bit too open-ended to achieve its aims.
Encounter (Amazon Prime)
Starring: Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer
Synopsis: The latest from Amazon had a limited theatrical run and made the festival rounds this Fall. It features Riz Ahmed as a veteran and father, newly out of prison and struggling with his mental health. He goes and takes his two young sons from their mother, purportedly to go on a trip. Later, he reveals the world is being taken over by aliens that appear as bugs to infect people. He says he’s on a rescue mission, but his parole officer (Octavia Spencer) and the authorities worry that as a troubled man with a fragile mental state he might endanger himself and his kids, so the hunt begins. This is an interesting concept, with viewers spending the first part of the film trying to determine whether Ahmed is a hero or troubled. As the film winds on the answer becomes clear and the by-the-numbers nature of the story wears thin. So, too, does the lack of character development. Ahmed and Spencer are great actors but they aren’t given much to do here. This is a higher profile project but it falls flat as a film.
Rating: Rated R for language and some violence.
The First Wave (Hulu)
Synopsis: This documentary looks at the first wave of COVID, from February through June 2020, that impacted New York City. By now we’re all familiar with COVID and the havoc it has wreaked on the world, especially places like New York. The film does a nice job capturing the chaotic first days and the work of front-line workers who tried to save lives. There have been a number of stories like this, including Prime Time news magazines during the time and the documentary 76 Days, which covered a similar period in Wuhan, China. By contrast, I wasn’t as taken with this exploration. Perhaps it’s too fresh in our minds or perhaps we’ve seen pieces of this already. I thought this was a decently constructed documentary but failed to rise to the level of some other explorations of this topic.
Rating: Rated R for some language.
Synopsis: Another documentary, this one focusing on three generations of women from the same family. The first is a mother and her daughter, Jacinta, who are in prison together. Both have struggled with addiction and incarceration. We meet Jacinta on the day she’s to be released, trying to get her life together and connect with her own pre-teen daughter. That struggle doesn’t always go well as Jacinta ends up back in prison, again working to rebuild her life and rebuild the relationship with her own daughter. It’s an honest and sometimes painful look at the struggle of addiction. But as a film, it sometimes feels oddly constructed. As a subject it’s important to consider but as a film it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Jockey (Releases December 29)
Starring: Clifton Collins, Jr., Molly Parker, and Moises Arias
Synopsis: This film, which releases in the last week of the year, centers on an aging jockey (Collins) who is chasing one last title. He’s been faithfully working with a trainer (Parker), with whom he’s developed a close bond. When a young jockey (Arias) arrives and claims to be his son, it throws his life into upheaval. This film from Clint Bentley does a nice job telling a simple story of a jockey, exploring the world and a man at a certain stage of life and career when he looks back on decisions he’s made. Collins is solid in the lead role, too. This one has all the makings of a decent sports drama, including some beautifully shot sequences. But ultimately the story hits too many cliches and fails to nail the third act.
Rating: Rated R for language.
The Real Charlie Chaplain (Showtime)
Synopsis: This documentary explores the life and career of actor Charlie Chaplin. It uses re-creations including real audio captured in interviews with Chaplin later in his life and with those who knew him to tell the story of his life, career and motivations. In part it’s a celebration of his notable character and on-screen and the sometimes-difficult man he could be off-screen, including a look at his failed marriages. It’s an interesting perspective on the man, including some footage of his films. And yet, as a film, it feels a bit like a by-the-numbers biography. I wanted to know a little more and see something that dove a little deeper into the man and his craft. It was OK, but not great.
The Rescue (Disney+)
Synopsis: Another documentary, this one on the 2018 incident where 12 boys and their coach were trapped in a cave by monsoon rains in Thailand. I remembered following the story on the news, but this film dives into the story of the men—mostly expert divers from around the world who were called in to assist—and their daring plan to rescue the children. It features a mixture of footage from the event and interviews with those involved, taking you deep into the stories of the rescuers and building the tension in every step of the journey. This documentary, from directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, does a beautiful job of telling this powerful story. It was engaging from the jump and surprisingly emotional, eliciting a variety of feelings as all the best stories are capable of doing. This is one of my favorite documentary features of the year and a story well worth seeking out.
Rating: Rated PG for thematic material involving peril and some language.
Small Engine Repair (VOD)
Starring: John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Ciara Bravo, and Jordana Spiro
Synopsis: This independent drama comes from writer/director Pollono, who stars as Frank, a man who we meet as he’s getting out of jail. He has two close friends (Bernthal and Whigham) who have helped care for his daughter. Jump ahead a few years and Frank is devoted to his daughter Crystal (Bravo). While she has an evening with her mother (Spiro) and is on the cusp of college, Frank re-unites with his friends, but things don’t go well. They have a falling out and cut off contact until a few months later, when he invites them to spend a night re-connecting. To celebrate the night, he brings a small-time drug dealer (Spencer House) to provide for the party. But not all is as it seems, with Frank having some ulterior motives. This film has a solid cast and a decent flow at times. The third act is wild but goes in some unexpected directions. Still, the disjointed nature of the three time periods—especially trying to figure out what the passage of time has been—diminishes the effect of the story in some ways. I liked the cast and the performances, but the story doesn’t always work as well as it could. I could also have used some more context for the relationship between the characters played by Bernthal, Whigham and Pollono, though all three do a nice job in their roles.
Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content, strong violence, a sexual assault, and drug use.
The Summit of the Gods (Netflix)
Synopsis: This is the second major release in the last part of the year on Netflix that focuses on mountaineering. The first was a documentary about a man that scaled a number of the world’s largest mountains. This is an animated tale about a photojournalist who chases the story of the first expedition up Mt. Everest that leads him to a reclusive climber who dropped off the map. This story is told in an animated style that works OK. The narrative is dry and it was hard to connect to the characters. I thought it had the potential to be an interesting concept but the execution of the final product fell flat for me.
Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, peril, some language, unsettling images and smoking.
The Unforgivable (Netflix)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, and Rob Morgan
Synopsis: This film sees Bullock as a woman who was convicted of killing a local Sheriff in a tragic incident where her farm was being foreclosed and she was trying to fight to save her home for herself and her young sister. After 20 years in prison, she’s no longer behind bars, but she’s not free, either. She tries to put her head down and do work, engaging a lawyer (D’Onofrio) to reconnect with her sister while regularly checking in with her protective Parole Officer (Morgan). This is a different kind of role for Bullock and a there is some potential in the premise, especially as the story unfolds and we learn more about the incident that led Bullock’s character to prison. It also boasts an incredible cast but the script doesn’t make the most of their talents. Many of the characters are severely under-developed, especially D’Onofrio and his character’s wife, played by Davis. Also, under-developed is sister, played by Aisling Franciosi, and her adoptive family. That keeps the final act from hitting as well as it should. The script from writers Peter Craig, Hilary Seitz and Courtenay Miles falls flat. It’s based on a TV series and I wonder if the adaptation condensed down so much that the meat of the narrative and characters suffered as a result. Bullock still does a nice job in the lead role and delivers some poignant moments in the final act, but overall, the film is just OK.
West Side Story (Theaters)
Starring: Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Ansel Elgort, Mike Faist, and Rita Moreno
Synopsis: One of the most anticipated films of the year, this re-make from director Steven Spielberg was originally supposed to be released this time last year. After delays due to the pandemic, West Side Story dropped on Friday and proved to be worth the wait. The original film, released in 1961, won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Moreno. It’s considered a classic and one of the best musicals ever. Spielberg tackles the story with a look and feel that match the original period and a script updated by Tony Kushner. The cast is solid and the production is beautiful to behold. The iconic musical numbers hit well and the updates, for me, improved on the efficacy of the story. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Zegler as Maria and DeBose as Anita. I think both should be strong contenders come awards season. This one hit all the notes you’re looking for, delivering on the promise and anticipation. Though the off-screen actions of Elgort are problematic, I was still able to enjoy this re-telling for the craft put into it. I felt the soaring emotional notes too. This is one of my favorite films of the year so far.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.
Hallmark Christmas Movies
Sister Swap: A Hometown Holiday
Sister Swap: Christmas in the City
Starring: Ashley Williams, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Mark Deklin, Keith D. Robinson, Jacob Buster, and Kevin Nealon
Synopsis: This is a pair of movies which aired on consecutive Sundays (December 5 and December 12), but I’m reviewing them together because they are a tandem set. This clever idea from Hallmark takes real life sisters Ashley Williams and Kimberly Williams-Paisley and casts them as sisters both in need of something to shake them out of a rut at Christmas. Meg (Ashley) still lives in her hometown of Hazelwood. She helps run her parents’ bakery but dreams of the next big thing. She was planning a trip to France with her uncle (Nealon), but he passed away recently. Now, she’s on the fence about going. She heads to Salt Lake City to surprise her sister Jen (Kimberly), who has a rut of her own. She feels the pressure of running a successful restaurant without her late husband but wants more. While Meg stays in Salt Lake City to help plan a big gala for the restaurant, Jen and her son (Buster) head to Hazelwood where her parents are planning to sell her uncle’s family movie theater. In the first film, Jen falls in love with the theater and comes alive with the possibility of reviving it and a romance with a former flame (Deklin). In the second, we see Meg’s adventures in Salt Lake City and a potential romance with the restaurant’s manager (Robinson). Both films share some scenes in common, but director Sean McNamara does a nice job of not repeating much. Kimberly and Ashley are solid in the lead roles and both films are a lot of fun. I enjoyed the concept and how this whole story played out. It’s one of the best of the season for Hallmark.
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.