Here’s a look at the new films I saw this week. If you’d like to see more of my scores for films and thoughts, feel free to follow me on Letterboxd here.
American Underdog (Opens December 25)
Starring: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin and Dennis Quaid
Synopsis: This film opens wide on Christmas Day but I caught and advance screening last weekend. It’s a biopic on Kurt Warner, the quarterback who led the Rams to back-to-back Super Bowls and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. But his story isn’t easy. It’s an inspirational story of struggle, triumph and faith. Levi plays Warner, and Paquin stars as his wife, Brenda. The film picks up with Warner as a quarterback and Northern Iowa University. He struggles to get on the field, but when he does, he shines. Yet, Warner gets no interest in the NFL draft. Soon, he’s working at a local grocery store to support his family when he gets a shot in the Arena League. He parlays great play with the Iowa Barnstormers to a shot with the St. Louis Rams, and the rest is history. I loved the story here and the way it’s told. Levi is great in the lead role and I appreciated Paquin, too. It’s a beautiful story of family and perseverance. Quaid appears in the final act as Rams’ coach Dick Vermeil. I always loved watching Warner play and found his story inspiring. This is a sports biopic that delivers, and the rare Christian film that doesn’t play as overly preachy, letting the story speak for itself.
Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements.
Being the Ricardos (Amazon Prime)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, Nina Arianda, and J.K. Simmons
Synopsis: Aaron Sorkin’s latest film centers on Lucille Ball (Kidman) and her husband and co-star Desi Arnaz (Bardem) during a tumultuous week on the set of their hit show, I Love Lucy. Plenty is swirling as Lucy is suspected of being a Communist, rumors are Desi is having an affair and the two have to buckle down to film an episode in the next five days. Sorkin has a gift with dialogue, and his work has frequently explored the behind-the-scenes tension and pressure of making a TV show. It was the fodder for several of his television series, which is part of why I was excited about this concept. The writing and craft here is solid, and the cast is talented. I particularly enjoyed Simmons and Arianda in supporting roles. I think Kidman and Bardem are good actors but I didn’t quite buy them totally in these roles. Kidman has some strong moments, but it felt more like a performance rather than seamlessly inhabiting the character. The story has some stirring moments and I appreciated the craft but, ultimately, it fell a bit short for me. It’s good but not great. It provides some interesting perspective on these famous folks, the issues with making their series and America at the time, which is fascinating. But the ending doesn’t land with the emotional punch intended.
Rating: Rated R for language.
A Clusterfunke Christmas (Hulu/Comedy Central)
Starring: Vella Lovell, Cheyenne Jackson, Rachel Dratch, and Ana Gasteyer
Synopsis: By now, we’re quite aware of the Hallmark Christmas Movie formula. There are plenty of holiday cliches. If you’re a fan, you look past it. If you’re not a fan, it’s probably a source of amusement. This latest film from Comedy Central takes that idea and uses it as fodder for a parody. It finds a young woman (Lovell) sent to a small town to snap up a popular local inn run by two sisters (Dratch and Gasteyer) with help from their nephew (Jackson). This sets up pretty funny, leaning into a lot of the cliches of the format and using them as fodder for humor. However, this feels like it would have been a delightful sketch, or maybe a half-hour special. As a two-hour film, parody isn’t enough to keep it going, and the story isn’t interesting enough on its own. It wears thin on the premise quickly.
The Hand of God (Netflix)
Starring: Fillippo Scotti, Tony Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, and Luisa Ranieri
Synopsis: This film comes from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino and is one of his most personal films to date. It draws on autobiographical elements of his life, centering on a young man (Scotti) in the 1980s in Italy. He’s passionate about soccer and trying to find direction in his life, settling on a passion for making films. When a tragedy occurs in his life, it spurs him to make a decision about his future. This is one of the most beautifully shot and constructed films I’ve seen this year. Sorrentino has a strong visual eye. You can also feel how personal this journey is and there are moments where it’s quite emotionally resonant. However, this feels like a screen story that would resonate more strongly with those from that region as so much of it is so specific to the time and place. There are also some odd moments in the story that didn’t totally land for me. It’s a well-made film and beautiful film that doesn’t quite connect on all aspects of the narrative.
Rating: Rated R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.
Synopsis: Back in 2015 when I saw the film Spotlight, which chronicles the reporters who broke the story on the Catholic Sex Abuse scandal, I was deeply moved. As the film ends and the lists of victims from around the world scrolled, I remember tears rolling down my cheek. Procession, a new documentary on Netflix, explores the stories of six men who were abused by clergy and still trying to deal with the grief, pain and trauma of those experience. In part, they work through it using a drama therapist and recreations. The film follows these victims, shares their difficult stories and looks at the guilt, grief and anger that is still part of their story even decades later. It’s difficult to hear but an important story to remember given the horrific events that occurred. It’s not an easy watch but it’s worth the effort.
Rating: Rated R for language.
Ron’s Gone Wrong (HBO Max/Disney+)
Starring: Zack Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Ed Helms, Olivia Coleman, and Justice Smith
Synopsis: This animated film made its debut in theaters earlier this Fall and now has debuted on not one but two streaming platforms! It centers on a boy (Glazer) who doesn’t have many friends. He lives with his father (Helms) and grandmother (Coleman) and simply wants one of the hot new bots that become your friend. When he gets one, Ron (Galifianakis), it isn’t what he expected. It takes him on a journey that brings him closer to the people in his life as well. This is a fun little animated tale, one that has heart and a few twists. I liked the voice work and I was drawn into the story. This is a solid adventure that’s a bit of fun for the whole family. I liked the humor and the way the story played out, including a sweet little ending.
Rating: Rated PG for some rude material, thematic elements and language.
Starring: Geraldine Viswanathan, Will Arnett, and Terry Crews
Synopsis: Another animated film, this one making its debut solely on Paramount+ streaming. This one is set in the world of monster wrestling. In order to save the stadium in their town after the city’s star attraction (Crews) left for another city, the daughter of a famous trainer (Viswanathan) and the son of a famous monster wrestler (Arnett) try to make a name for themselves and bring in enough revenue to save their town. The voice cast is solid and the animation looks decent. The story is OK but this one doesn’t hit as strongly as some other animated films. It’s a decent finished product but it’s just OK. It’s a fine one to stream but it makes sense why it skipped the theater during this crowded season.
Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (Theaters)
Starring: Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zendaya, and Marissa Tomei
Synopsis: The third Spider-Man film is one of the most anticipated films of the year, and one of the most anticipated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This came after the previous installment, which dropped in 2019 and ended on a bit of a wow moment. Since many details about this new film and its links to the past for Spider-Man have come out, only adding to the hype surrounding the production and release. I won’t spoil the plot or those details here, I’ll just say that many films with this kind of weight of expectations inevitably fall short. This film doesn’t crumble under that weight, it delivers a fun and engaging ride, one that provides a strong emotional cap on the previous films and opens the door to wherever this universe might go next. It’s a tribute to those involved and the richness of the production and performances that this works so well. I loved the way this came together. There are fun moments and some great humor, but more than anything this feels like the most emotional film in the Spider-Man franchise. Holland does a wonderful job in this installment and is a standout among a strong cast. I enjoyed the ride and think this is a Top Five entry in the MCU.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments.
Swan Song (Apple TV+)
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Awkwafina, and Glenn Close
Synopsis: The latest from Apple TV+ is a drama about a man (Ali) who finds out he’s dying. Set in the near future, he has a chance to provide himself for his family long-term thanks to a new technology involving cloning offered by a cutting-edge scientist (Close). As he prepares to say goodbye to his wife (Harris) and shares the experience with a fellow terminal patient (Awkwafina) in the same situation, he must come to grips with the end of his journey and his replacement. This is a heady concept and Ali does a nice job in the lead role, packing his performance with some rich emotional work. Harris, Awkwafina and Close are solid as well, but this is mostly a showcase for Ali and his journey. It’s an interesting type of story, one where we’ve seen variations play out on the big and small screen. Yet the richness of the work here and depth of emotion helps this land a decent emotional punch. I liked the work done by writer/director Benjamin Cleary to bring the story to life. This was at times powerful and a times thought-provoking, another solid addition to the Apple library.
The Tender Bar (Limited/Amazon Prime January 7)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, and Lily Rabe
Synopsis: Hailing from director George Clooney, The Tender Bar is a based on the memoir from author J.R. Moehringer, based on his life. The film opens in limited release this week and will stream on Amazon Prime in early January. The focus of the story is on J.R., played as a child by Daniel Ranieri and as a college student and young adult by Sheridan. But, mostly, it focuses on J.R.’s relationship with his Uncle Charlie (Affleck), who is a guiding force in his life. J.R. has a passion to become a writer, and it’s the support and guidance of his uncle that helps give him the push. His mother (Rabe) struggles make a living, and they all live in his grandfather’s (Christopher Lloyd) house. J.R.’s own father, a radio personality known as The Voice (Max Martini) is largely absentee. He pops up now and again but mostly serves to frustrate J.R.’s mother and Uncle Charlie. The film is something of a coming-of-age story but the pieces don’t all fit. I’ve enjoyed Clooney’s work as a filmmaker in the past but I felt like a little was lost in the translation here offered by screenwriter William Monaghan. The star of the show is Affleck, who gives a consistent and engaging performance as Charlie. By contrast, the character of J.R. felt a bit under-developed, which is problematic given he’s the focus of the film. Sheridan does a passable job and has some amusing moments, but overall that portion of the film failed to connect. The Tender Bar has some moments but doesn’t quite deliver a finished product.
Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.
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.