“Hillbilly Elegy” stars Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, and Owen Asztalos. Released on November 11, 2020, followed by a Netflix release on November 24, 2020, the film chronicles the lives of an Appalachian family.
The film is directed by Ron Howard, who also directed films such as “Apollo 13”, “A Beautiful Mind”, “Cinderella Man”, “The Da Vinci Code”, and “In the Heart of the Sea”. It is based on the memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance. The holiday season is a special time of the year when we spend some quality time with our friends and family, especially the latter. So why don’t we spend some time with a family from Appalachia? Ron Howard has been directing a variety of films for many years ranging from comedies to thrillers to even dramas. Some of his films have reached critical gold and became classics. Others, not so much. In terms of box office and critical reception, Howard has been having a difficult time keeping his reputation consistent recently. Throughout the last decade, he has delivered a few misfires like “The Dilemma” and “Inferno”, along with some pretty good films like “Rush” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, in my personal opinion. Now he’s starting off the new decade by helming a film adaptation of J. D. Vance’s real-life experience with his family. Ever since its official release a couple of weeks ago, the film hasn’t been doing a lot to redeem Howard’s flawed career as it received some criticism for its story. On the plus side, the cast has earned some praise for their performances, so there’s that. Now that it’s released on Netflix, was it worth the criticism or was it the type of film that’s highly misunderstood?
The story’s main focus is J. D. Vance himself (played by Basso), a Yale law student who returns to his family home in Ohio, and his relationship with his mother Bev (Adams) and his grandmother Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance (Close). It also showcases a series of flashbacks that depicts the three generations of the Vance family. In other words, it’s a film that consists of family problems and people having a yelling contest. Typical ingredients for an “awards-worthy” film. But for a film like this to work, it needs to have more than just those elements. It needs to have a compelling story that resonates with people and the topics that we are currently experiencing as we speak. That’s what made “The Trial of the Chicago 7” work for me. In “Hillbilly Elegy”, it deals with poverty and social issues in the Appalachian culture as well as generational trauma and the importance of family and how their teachings can help someone become a better person. Those themes alone could make for an interesting and emotionally-driven story that’ll require multiple tissues, especially the latter two. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This is one of the films that you’ll either love or hate depending on your expectations. If you’re expecting it to be a straightforward drama about an imperfect family and nothing else, I believe that you’ll be mostly satisfied with the final result. However, if you’re expecting it to be an emotional and well-written roller coaster that focuses on respecting the representation of economic issues in Appalachian culture and its themes, you might not appreciate it as much as the ones that do. Personally, I’m a little bit close to the latter. To Howard’s credit, he did try to make the family drama work by letting the main actors shine and attempting to provide some small doses of emotion into the characters and their relationships. Sadly, he wound up with something that’s somehow more frustrating than sentimental when it comes to the characters and the direction. He had the right idea on the story he wants to envision, but his style of storytelling lacked a lot of things that made the other films with similar themes work extremely well. Some of the editing during a couple of scenes was a bit questionable at times and the emotional depth just felt forced, like it was trying way too hard to make us feel bad for the characters because of the situations that they’re in. Not only was it as mediocre as a made-for-television melodrama on Lifetime, but it’s also unbalanced to a fault. It wants to showcase plenty of emotions, like anger, sad, and happy, but to me, it’s leaning a bit too close to the former, which is something that I really don’t want in a film. This is mostly due to the actions that some of the characters made throughout the film, most particularly Bev. Despite the talent that Adams brought to the table, her character was just way too provocative for me to care about. I can understand that she went through some issues herself, such as drug addiction, but the script didn’t do a whole lot to her character that made me want to feel bad for her. Bev just became one of the mean-spirited characters that made me want to hit with a huge shovel. If there’s one thing that actually made the film worth watching, it would have to be Glenn Close’s performance as Mamaw. While Mamaw is far from a perfect character, Close did a really good job at capturing her strict, yet caring, persona, which could help her get into this year’s Oscar race if she’s lucky. Gabriel Basso also did a suitable job with his role as Vance, and Asztalos wasn’t too bad as Vance’s younger self.
Overall, “Hillbilly Elegy” has the ingredients needed to make a compelling and thought-provoking drama. What we got instead is a mediocre experience that force feeds emotions and frustrates me to no end. Even though the cast did their best with their performances, the film suffers from its lackluster storytelling, Howard’s mediocre sense of direction, and some frustrating characters. It’s not as horrible as most of the critics suggested, but I can definitely see this as another misfire from Ron Howard. It’s worth checking out for Glenn Close alone. Other than that, you might be okay skipping this one unless you’re still interested in watching it.
“Superintelligence” stars Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, and James Corden. Released on HBO Max on November 26, 2020, the film is about a woman who comes across the world’s first super-intelligence.
The film is directed by Ben Falcone, who also directed “Tammy”, “The Boss”, and “Life of the Party”. We always knew that someday, our world will be taken over by technology. We just didn’t know that this uprising will start with an artificial intelligence that sounds like James Corden. This latest film from HBO Max marks yet another collaboration between Melissa McCarthy and director Ben Falcone, the husband-and-wife duo who has delivered some mildly successful comedies despite receiving some mixed-to-negative reviews in the process. While I too am not a huge fan of Falcone’s filmography (with “Tammy” being the worst in my opinion), I was able to find some enjoyment from some of them due to McCarthy’s likable charisma. Given the film's well-known cast and its family-friendly concept, it looks like it might pull off this familiar feat. Was it able to do so? Let’s find out.
The film follows Carol Peters (McCarthy), a former corporate executive who is living an earnest yet unfulfilled life. One day, she gets some snarky backtalk from every piece of technology around her. At first, she thought it was just some dumb prank, but it turns out that she’s being monitored by the world’s first super-intelligence (voiced by Corden), whose goal is to observe human behavior and see if the world is ready to keep on living or be destroyed. Based on everything that’s going on today, this makes total sense. With time running short, Carol must find a way to prove to the super-intelligence that people are worth saving, while also attempting to win back her former boyfriend George (Cannavale). It’s no surprise that this is another comedy that showcases McCarthy using her own sense of charm and brand of humor to attract her audience, which I didn’t mind since everyone has a different taste in comedy, myself included. Based on the marketing and its concept, you would probably think that this could be a wildly entertaining chuckle-fest that offers fun, comedy, romance, and an endearing message about love. It was able to handle the latter two all right. The former two, not so much. Aside from a fine cast (especially McCarthy) and an okay-ish third act, the film is another unfortunate misfire in Falcone’s directorial career. This is one of those moments when I really wanted to like a film because of its intriguing concept, but it was making things harder for me to do so. I find this very upsetting, and I’m pretty sure that most people would feel the same way. The film definitely has heart, and I can’t call it out for that, but it was sadly overshadowed by two types of viruses: Ben Falcone’s poor sense of direction and its underwhelming humor. You can easily tell that Falcone had no idea how to blend the two genres (comedy and romance) together seamlessly, resulting in his direction being a program with an identity crisis. Is it supposed to be comedy? A romantic love story? A romantic comedy? An action romance comedy? No one knows. I didn’t hate it as much as I did with “Jexi”, another comedy that has a character interacting with an artificial intelligence, thank goodness. It actually left me feeling disappointed rather than upset because of how abysmal the execution was. The film’s plot was extremely bland to a fault, and Steve Mallory’s screenplay missed a whole bunch of opportunities to take the concept even further and make the characters more interesting, especially Carol. It’s like the writer didn’t care that much about getting into the concept’s bizarreness and just used the A.I. element as a way to drive its lazy romantic plot forward. You can still have the romance part in the film as long as everything else is interesting and fun, which are the key words when it comes to films like this. At least with “The Boss” and “Life of the Party”, they had that sense of enjoyment in their humorous and heartfelt scenarios despite them not being that great. With “Superintelligence”, there’s no excuse. It’s almost as lifeless as a 1980s IBM computer. Don’t know what it is? Look it up. There were some jokes that had the potential to be funny, but like its plot, a lot of them felt either lazy or forced, even by its PG-rated standards. I did get like one or two small chuckles out of them, but other than that, the humor just didn’t land for me. Not even the voice of James Corden (who had a decent moment or two) can make it even more amusing than it should be.
Overall, it doesn’t take an artificial intelligence to discover that “Superintelligence” has a lot of bugs in its system. While I didn’t hate it as much as I did with the likes of “Coffee & Kareem” and even “Jexi”, I would say that this is Ben Falcone’s worst film since his directorial debut, “Tammy”, back in 2014. With its boring plot, mediocre characters, weak humor, and an unsatisfying script, this film will make certain people swear off technology for a while. It’s a good thing that the studio decided to release it on HBO Max instead of in the theater so that people can watch it at home for free without complaining about wasting their money on a “bad film”. Although it won’t stop them from complaining about wasting their time watching a bad film. Can’t win them all, I guess. If you’re a fan of McCarthy’s other works, you should be fine watching it once. If not, then you’re better off watching the Fresh Prince reunion special.
“The Christmas Chronicles 2” stars Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Darby Camp, Judah Lewis, Jazhir Bruno, Julian Dennison, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley. Released on Netflix on November 25, 2020, the film has Santa Claus attempting to save the North Pole from a mischievous troublemaker.
The film is directed by Chris Columbus, who also directed films such as “Adventures in Babysitting”, “Home Alone”, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Bicentennial Man”, and “Pixels”. It is a sequel to the 2018 film “The Christmas Chronicles”, which was produced by Columbus. You know what will make this year’s holiday season great? Seeing Kurt Russell in a Santa suit. You know what will make it even more special? Seeing Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, and it’s not even Christmas yet. Two years ago, Netflix released a small film that turned out to be a better-than-expected holiday comedy. From its enjoyable story to Kurt Russell’s performance as Santa Claus, “The Christmas Chronicles” was able to become the next Christmas tradition. In fact, it was successful enough to generate a follow-up, which proves that people just can’t get enough of Santa Kurt. Despite a few issues, I did manage to enjoy “The Christmas Chronicles” when it first came out, mostly because of Russell and its yuletide tone. This gave me a perfect excuse to check out its sequel, which has real-life couple Russell and Hawn reprising their roles as Santa and Mrs. Claus respectively and Chris Columbus taking over as director instead of Clay Kaytis, the director of the first film. Does it have enough holiday cheer to justify its existence? Let’s head on down to the North Pole and find out.
Taking place several years after the first film, the story once again follows Kate (Camp) and Teddy Pierce (Lewis), two siblings who are now grown into teenagers. Their mother Claire (Williams-Paisley) is now in a relationship with her new boyfriend Bob (played by Tyrese Gibson) and in typical fashion, Kate is not happy about it. During a family vacation, Kate, along with Bob’s son Jack (Bruno), unexpectedly gets transported to the North Pole, where she reunites with the jolly man himself, Santa Claus (Russell). When a troublemaking elf named Belsnickel (Dennison) threatens to cancel Christmas forever, it’s up to Kate, Jack, Santa, and Mrs. Claus (Hawn) to save the holiday once again. This is another “race-against-time” type of film that’s in the same veins as its predecessor, but with a few differences. Most of the action takes place in the North Pole instead of in the city, it features an antagonist in the form of Belsnickel, and Teddy Pierce is left sitting in the sidelines while his young sister sets off to save the day. Apologies to those who enjoy Judah Lewis in the original. What I liked about “The Christmas Chronicles” was that despite its cheesy kid-friendly quality, it delivered a buttload of Christmas charm into its harmless story and its heartwarming messages. Oh, and also Kurt Russell’s fresh take on Santa Claus. “The Christmas Chronicles 2” offers more of the same, which would make some fans very happy, but just like any other sequel to a smash hit, it fell short of being as cheerful as the original. Most of the stuff that made “The Christmas Chronicles” a holiday hit on Netflix was present in the sequel, such as its corny, yet adorable, Christmasy charm and a message that should resonate well with those who are dealing with the possibility of a blended family. Another thing that hasn’t changed was Kurt Russell himself. His performance as Santa was once again the best part of the film, and his chemistry with Hawn (who also delivered a respectable performance as Mrs. Claus) made his presence just as sweet as a candy cane. However, as far as storytelling goes, the film became a bit too corny for its own good. The plot was very formulaic and generic, the dialogue was a bit bland, and the relationships between some of the characters were pretty weak. I also had some issues with the film’s CGI effects. While some of them looked tolerable, the rest of the effects looked floaty as heck, like they’re not consistent with the kinetic kid-friendly action that was represented in the film. I’m not the only one who noticed this, right? Another small flaw I had was the supporting cast. They’re not entirely awful, but I wouldn’t say that they’re as highly enjoyable as Russell and Hawn. Darby Camp and Jazhir Bruno both did all right as Kate and Jack respectively, although I would like to see more of them together in order to fully develop their relationship. Julian Dennison, who is known for his roles in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Deadpool 2”, made himself known onscreen yet again, this time as a villainous elf whose heart is filled with heartache and naughtiness, and I had to say that this was sadly his weakest performance of his career so far. I thought Belsnickel was a fine villain, but the way Dennison delivered some of his lines wasn’t as convincing as I thought it should be. It just felt forced to me.
Overall, “The Christmas Chronicles 2” is a formulaic holiday follow-up whose corniness may have pushed itself a bit over the edge. However, if Chris Columbus’ goal was to make a harmless family film that’ll fill people’s hearts with Christmas joy and happiness during this difficult time, including mine, I think he did his job fairly well. It doesn’t compete with the likes of his other holiday comedy “Home Alone”, but it does have plenty of good moments that I enjoyed, such as Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, aka the real stars of the show. Despite its generic story, a mediocre supporting cast, and its lackluster CGI, I believe the film is suitable enough for people who enjoy its predecessor and for those who are in need of some holiday cheer this year.
“Run” stars Sarah Paulson, Kiera Allen, Pat Healy, and Sara Sohn. Released on Hulu on November 20, 2020, the film is about a teenager who discovers her mother’s deadly secret.
The film is directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who also directed “Searching”. A mother’s love is undeniably sentimental, but it can also be quite deadly if her actions are called into question. It’s actually been a while since I reviewed something from Hulu, so I guess now would be a good time to get back into it, starting with this. This latest thriller sees the return of writer/director Aneesh Chaganty, who has made his presence known with his successful debut, “Searching”, two years ago. In case you haven’t realized, I absolutely loved “Searching” because of its heart-pounding thrills and its well-executed mystery aspect, so when I heard that Chaganty is working on his next project, my curiosity immediately spiked within seconds. It also got me interested in seeing if he can capture lightning in the bottle for the second time without having it set on a single computer screen. The film was originally set to hit theaters during Mother’s Day weekend, which makes sense given its concept, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused it to be pulled from the schedule indefinitely. Some time later, its distribution rights were purchased by Hulu, and the rest is history. Now that it’s here at last, does it meet my expectations?
The story follows Chloe Sherman (Allen), a wheelchair-bound teenager who is living at home with her mother Diane (Paulson). Everything seems to be normal until Chloe uncovers some terrifying secrets that forces her to question her relationship with Diane as well as herself. She attempts to learn more about these secrets while staying one step ahead of her so-called “mother”. This is another film that challenges its viewers to explain the plot to other people without giving away some major spoilers so that they too can experience it for themselves. This is something that I appreciate because of how they incorporate the element of surprise into their storytelling. With the right execution, it could wind up being an event that will leave people speechless…or give them heart attacks from the endless amounts of suspense. Similar to “Searching”, Aneesh Chaganty delivered a heart-pounding and limited story that took advantage of its twists and tension to keep itself from losing interest in its characters and the scenarios that they’re in. While it failed to catch lightning in the bottle for the second time when it comes to its emotional themes, the film successfully showcased Chaganty’s undeniable skills as the master of suspense. From its technical aspects such as the cinematography and the editing to its brilliant cast, “Run” is a nonstop thrill ride that refuses to let you breathe until the very end. Not literally because that would be awful. To best describe Sarah Paulson’s performance as Diane, I would say that it took the pages straight out of Toni Collette’s acting book in “Hereditary”. Yeah, it’s that good. Paulson was extremely haunting and riveting in her role, but she didn’t get to the point where it became campy, making her performance even more special. Kiera Allen also shines in her breakout role as Chloe, a character who is disabled, but also smart enough to make me root for her survival. As I mentioned before, what makes the film’s suspense so effective is not just the story itself, but also the characters and the situations they put themselves in, which is where Chloe comes into play. Throughout the film, Chloe attempts to figure out the truth behind her mother, but she is restricted by her symptoms like her asthma and her paralysis. These traits alone, combined with Allen’s performance, helped provide enough anxiety in Chloe’s scenarios to make plenty of viewers say “oh my god” multiple times. The scenarios were also well-executed by Chaganty’s tight direction, its solid screenplay, and Torin Borrowdale’s score. Borrowdale previously collaborated with Chaganty in “Searching”, which also has a good soundtrack, so I can see why these two reunited for “Run”. The score in this film is pretty much what I expected when it comes to its tone: intense and nicely-crafted. The only problem I had with the film was the third act, most particularly the final 15 minutes of it. Without spoilers, the film had a very enticing set-up followed by a couple of interesting twists during the second act. The finale kept it from being a perfect experience by borrowing a few elements that we’ve seen in other thrillers. It’s a good finale, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I was expecting a bit more out of it in terms of its characters and themes. I prefer the finale in “Searching” because of how well Chaganty provided the emotional depth in the characters’ relationships.
Overall, “Run” is another thrilling experience that you have to see for yourself. Not only that, but it is also a stellar sophomore debut from Aneesh Chaganty. Despite its minor issue with the third act, the film effectively combines its twisty and haunting concept with some strong performances, its gripping script, and Chaganty’s ability to provide strong tension. After making two solid films, Chaganty has definitely proven himself to be a confident and talented young filmmaker when it comes to the mystery thriller genre, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. It’s worth checking out on Hulu if you’re a fan of mystery films. Also, if there are any mothers out there who are reading this review, remember this: If you really love your child, don’t be a Sarah Paulson.
“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” stars Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Hugh Bonneville, and Ricky Martin. Released on Netflix on November 13, 2020, the film is about a toymaker and his granddaughter who race to create a magical invention.
The film is written and directed by David E. Talbert, who also directed “First Sunday”, “Baggage Claim”, “Almost Christmas”, and “El Camino Christmas”. It’s finally November once again. You know what that means? Yep, it’s time to start watching some Christmas movies. Seriously, when are we going to get some more movies that are Thanksgiving-themed? Where’s the love for the turkey? Netflix is getting the holiday festivities started with the latest Christmas-related film from writer/director David E. Talbert, who has been spreading some holiday cheer for the past four years. But here’s the catch: it’s a Christmas-related musical film that’s produced by singer/songwriter John Legend. How’s that for an early Christmas gift? I realized that Netflix already released a couple of Christmas films before “Jingle Jangle”, but I wouldn’t want to waste my time with those films when I got something that interests me more. It has a well-known cast and plenty of holiday cheer in its premise and music, but are they enough to make this the next Christmas classic?
The film takes place in a vibrant Christmas-like town called Cobbleton, where a legendary toymaker named Jeronicus Jangle (Whitaker) creates fantastical inventions at his toy shop. These inventions are known for bringing joy and whimsy to every boy and girl in town. He’s basically the African-American version of Santa Claus. His passion took a nasty dip when his trusty assistant Gustafson (Key) steals one of his inventions as well as his book of inventions, resulting in him feeling distraught and losing his creative spark in the process. Many years later, Jeronicus’ shop is facing financial hardship and is now racing to pay off his debts before he loses it for good. When his granddaughter Journey (Mills) discovers one of his inventions, The Buddy 3000, she attempts to protect it from falling into the hands of Gustafson. The major thing that stood out the most when it comes to this film is the representation. This is a holiday fantasy film that’s packed with a diverse cast. Sure, we have plenty of live-action Christmas films, but one that is filled with fantasy elements and musical numbers? That’s something that we don’t get that often, so major props to Netflix and David E. Talbert for releasing this kind of film to the public. They deserve a pat on the backs, or should I say presents underneath their Christmas trees? Aside from that, how is the film itself? Honestly, it’s pretty much what I expected it to be. It’s a whimsical and dazzling holiday musical that’ll make any viewer’s heart swell up like a balloon. While I wouldn’t call this the next Christmas classic when it comes to its storytelling, I would say that it offered enough music and good cheer in its plot and its heartwarming messages to dance its way to the top. Similar to the other live-action musicals like “The Greatest Showman”, the cast in “Jingle Jangle” pulled double duty as both actors and singers, and they did a good job with both of them. Forest Whitaker did pretty well with his performance as Jeronicus, but I think Keegan-Michael Key as Gustafson was the most entertaining out of all of the entire cast. Despite his character being a by-the-numbers antagonist, Key still managed to keep things moving with his own style of energy in his performance and his singing. Newcomer Madalen Mills made a solid first impression as Journey, Jeronicus’ granddaughter who shares the same passion as him. It’s far from a perfect performance, but she does know how to shine bright when the spotlight’s on her. I also want to point out that Kieron L. Dyer’s Edison, Jeronicus’ assistant, was a hit-and-miss for me in terms of his performance. The character was fine for the most part, but his style of humor didn’t quite work for me. As for the musical numbers, which were written by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint, and John Legend, they’re quite decent. They definitely have that specific vibe in the film's sequences and choreography that made “The Greatest Showman” a show-stopping phenomenon, which, in my eyes, worked very well in the film’s vibrant Christmas setting. They’re kinetic, heartfelt, and more importantly, enjoyable. I think the ones that stood out the most for me was “Magic Man G” by Key, “Square Root of Possible” by Mills, and “Make It Work” by Whitaker and Anika Noni Rose. The former for being catchy and energetic, and the latter two for the inspiring lyrics. I also think the CGI effects and the visual representation of its storytelling were pretty solid. The film has sequences that uses CGI marionette puppets to describe the events of the story, which looked very impressive, in my opinion. Even though most of the CGI effects looked a bit iffy at times, they did manage to put some effort into them, especially the design of The Buddy 3000. The only issue I have with the film was the execution of its story. I was able to enjoy the story for what it is, but I couldn’t help but think that the way it was told could’ve been a lot more fun. It got off to a promising start during the first act, but then it struggled a bit to keep its lively momentum consistent during the rest of the film. There are certain narrative elements that felt either rushed or underdeveloped, including the relationship between The Buddy 3000 and Journey, the rivalry between Jeronicus and Gustafson, and Journey herself. I’m thinking if there have been more time to develop those narrative elements, the film would’ve been more enjoyable for both kids and adults.
Overall, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is a lovely early Christmas gift for fans of holiday films and musicals in general. The story can be a bit underdeveloped or a bit slow at times, but its sense of joy and wonder was able to overshadow its flawed narrative and spread some holiday cheer. This is another worthy addition to the “Christmas Films” collection due to its suitable cast, its engaging musical numbers, and its heartfelt messages. It’s worth checking out on Netflix if you’re in a holiday-like mood this season, and remember, if you believe hard enough, anything is possible.