A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish (2019, Directed by Michelle Johnston) English 5

Starring Laura Marano, Gregg Sulkin, Isabella Gomez, Barclay Hope, Johannah Newmarch, Chanelle Peloso

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(5-Okay Film)

Fine. Formulaic. Silly.

Kat Decker (Laura Marano), an aspiring singer, lives under the oppressive roof of her step-mother and two vapid step-sisters. While working her menial job as a Christmas elf to support her family, she meets Dominic Wintergarden (Gregg Sulkin), wealthy, handsome, and kind. Is there any way that he could actually be interested in her? This is a romantic comedy so, of course, there is. Let’s start with the positives: the actors are fine. That’s about it for me. It’s very straightforward, underwhelming fare with bad music thrown in.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby (2019, Directed by John Schultz) English 5

Starring Rose McIver, Ben Lamb, Alice Krige, Honor Kneafsey, Sarah Douglas, Tahirah Sharif, Theo Devaney, Crystal Yu

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(5-Okay Film)

Retread. Predictable. Corny.

There’s no reason, as far as I can tell, that Netflix shouldn’t just keep rolling out these ultra-cheesy, predictable Christmas Prince movies every year. The Royal Baby, the third film in this watershed trilogy, brings back Queen Amber (Rose McIver) and King Richard (Ben Lamb) as they prepare for the birth of their first child and also to sign a treaty that would continue the alliance between their made-up country, Aldovia, and some other made-up country, Penglia. When someone steals the treaty before it’s signed, the king and queen go into detective mode. Enjoyable, treacly to the extreme, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby is satisfying viewing for those who like laughable, corny entertainment.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Directed by Quentin Tarantino) English 8

Starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Lena Dunham, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Lorenza Izzo, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Languorous. Surprising. Memorable.

I love actors and clearly, Tarantino does as well. Every actor’s career has a unique arc to it because, regardless of how talented an actor is, there is only so much they can control. As a result, every actor struggles at some point in their career. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), one-time star of T.V’s Bounty Law and the main character in Tarantino’s latest film, is struggling. His show is over, his attempt to make it into film didn’t pan out. Now, the only roles he gets are heavies in someone else’s T.V show, and the only movie roles offered are, in his mind, second-rate spaghetti westerns. Once Upon a Time in the West moves slowly through a handful of crucial days in the lives of Rick Dalton, his best friend/stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt), and his famous, relatively new neighbor, Sharon Tate (Robbie) as we move to the fateful date of August 8th, 1969 (Tate-LaBianca murders) knowing very well what happened in real life and wondering what Tarantino is going to do with it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a strangely languid picture. I consider it a triumph for a director such as Tarantino to be able to still surprise me on his 9th feature film. The friendship between Dalton and Booth is a memorable one, and both actors are endearing here; DiCaprio is surprisingly moving as the insecure Dalton and Pitt as cool as he has ever been and that is saying something. I was underwhelmed and largely indifferent to Robbie’s Sharon Tate, though I like Tarantino’s historically inaccurate ending. I don’t object to Tate being a supporting character or having so few lines but she never made much of an impression on me and maybe I am handicapped by having no knowledge of her aside from her tragic murder. The 1960s are a foreign time and hold no nostalgia for me. Unavoidably, ’60s rock isn’t really my thing so this is probably my least favorite Tarantino soundtrack.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Knives Out (2019, Directed by Rian Johnson) English 7

Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Lieberher, Toni Colette, K Callan, Frank Oz, M. Emmet Walsh

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(7-Very Good Film)

Intelligent. Crafty. Satisfying.

    You can’t help but try to get ahead of complex mystery plots like this one. You believe that you are clever and that you’ve seen or read every twist. You’re skeptical that any new mystery can surprise you. At the same time, you are hoping that it does. The murder mystery is a genre that will never die out. It’s a never-ending well. A corpse with a hidden culprit has always been and will always be immediately engaging. If someone is killed, people want to know who did it, and so, without complaint or regret, and I’m sure that I’m not alone, I have sat through dozens of mediocre whodunnits and read just as many. Writer-director, Rian Johnson (fresh off of Star Wars: The Last Jedi), has too, and with an apparent love of the conventions of the genre, as well as a knowledge of some of its faults, he’s crafted Knives Out. The result is worthy and exciting, but not quite a knockout. Very few murder-mysteries are.

Starring Daniel Craig as a private detective, Benoit Blanc, hired to investigate the seemingly open and shut suicide of wealthy mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), we meet the large cast of characters made up primarily of Thrombey’s relatives: his daughter, Linda (Lee Curtis), her husband, Richard (Johnson), his widowed daughter-in-law, Joni (Colette), her daughter, Meg (Langford), and his youngest son, Walt (Shannon), with his wife and son. The more characters, the better in murder mysteries, because that means more suspects. We also meet Marta (de Armas), kind and honest, who would seem out of place in a murder mystery. She was Harlan’s nurse and, being unable to lie, becomes Blanc’s ally during the investigation. It’s the character of Marta, and she’s ultimately the main character, who first signifies the slight veering off familiar course that Knives Out takes. She’s right in the center of the action, but we’re told from the start to trust her, to see things from her perspective (not the detective’s), and to have a rooting interest in her. Generally, in whodunnits, my rooting interest is devoted entirely to solving the case. We care what happens to her. We notice when Richard hands her a plate at a party as if she’s the help.

Depth of character isn’t really an option in these kinds of movies. Instead, you’re working with caricatures. Rather than a weakness, I consider that part of the fun. I was aware of Ana de Armas before Knives Out and thought she was quite good in films like Knock Knock and Blade Runner 2049. The problem was that I didn’t like those movies. She makes a real impression on me here. Together with Daniel Craig’s eloquent, thoughtful country detective, the two make an appealing odd couple and are perhaps the movie’s chief pleasure. As for the supporting cast, one of the steady attractions of murder mysteries is the possibility of assembling a large number of famous people. There are a great many roles to be filled in movies like this and Hollywood traditionally fills them with A-List actors. Knives Out goes more for a strong cast of character actors and they do memorable work.

How do you revitalize the whodunnit? The central tropes are firmly established-a roomful of suspects, an isolated location, a brilliant detective, and a finale wherein that detective breaks it all down for us and the characters. Knives Out doesn’t remove any of the clichés. Instead, it plays with plot structure, and, more significantly, demonstrates a level of self-awareness missing from your average, straightforward murder mystery. That said, I wasn’t shocked by the twists. Not nearly. Its solutions are logical and maybe a tad simple. I think I might have enjoyed a red herring or two thrown in at the film’s climax, but I was satisfied.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Jumanji: The Next Level (2019, Directed by Jake Kasdan) English 5

Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karren Gillan, Danny Devito, Danny Glover, Awkwafina, Nick Jonas, Morgan Turner, Colin Hanks, Alex Wolff, Rhys Darby, Bebe Neuwirth, Rory McCann, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Dania Ramirez

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(5-Okay Film)

Fun. Familiar. Mediocre.

Robin Williams’ Jumanji was a big part of my childhood and an entertaining adventure film to this day. I didn’t expect much from its reboot, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but it proved to be a diverting, amusing good time on its way to close to a billion dollars earned worldwide. Naturally, they’d make another one and naturally, it’s less surprising and inspired than its predecessor. The four principals-Spencer, Bethany, Fridge, and Martha-have returned to the real world. Though they’ve gone on to their own paths, they stay friends and plan to reunite for Christmas break. Spencer, however, is struggling in the real world with insecurity and willingly puts himself back in the thrilling world of Jumanji where his friends are forced to follow after in order to rescue him. There are a couple of twists this time around. One is that Spencer’s grandpa, played by Danny Devito, is pulled into Jumanji along with his estranged business partner, played by Danny Glover. The second is the video game characters, played by The Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan, are occupied by different players this time around. The Rock and Kevin Hart are old men. Jack Black is a black jock. The movie moves quickly, is fun without being especially funny, and manages a serviceable amount of pathos between the Glover and Devito characters, but I can’t help thinking that each new Jumanji film is getting progressively less interesting (pardon the oxymoron).

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


You’ve Got Mail (1998, Directed by Nora Ephron) English 8

Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, Heather Burns, Dave Chappelle, Dabney Coleman

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Attractive. Entertaining. Satisfying.

Joe Fox (Hanks) is a mega-rich businessman who owns a chain of bookstores. Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) runs a quaint children’s book store in Manhattan, one she took over after her mother died. When Joe opens a Fox Books just blocks away from Kathleen’s store, the two become rivals, while unknowingly falling in love with each other through online correspondence. A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic The Shop Around the Corner, itself based on a play, You’ve Got Mail is a lot of things: corny, contrived, charming, and romantic most of all. It can be called inferior to The Shop Around the Corner, which it is, and still be a fantastic romantic comedy, which I believe it is, despite the soundtrack being more distracting than an asset unlike the soundtracks of some of Ephron’s previous films, notably Sleepless in Seattle. Clearly inspired by Pride and Prejudice (the book is referenced a couple of times in the movie), Joe is a bit of an arrogant jerk at times before sweeping Kathleen off of her feet in the end. Through it all, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan shine.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Holiday Rush (2019, Directed by Leslie Small) English 5

Starring Romany Malco, Sonequa Martin-Green, Darlene Love, Amarr M. Wooten, Tamala Jones

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(5-Okay Film)

Bland. Treacly. Likable.

Successful, affluent radio DJ and widower, Rashon Williams (Romany Malco), goes to work one day to find that #1) the station’s been taken over by a larger company and #2) he’s fired. Left to manage with less while dealing with his four spoiled children, Rashon hurries to come up with a long term solution with his partner, Roxy (Sonequa Martin-Green), who he may be falling in love with. There’s very little meaningful tension in this movie, which has been true of all the Netflix Christmas films. Things work out and they work out well in Holiday Netflix land. My bigger concern was that the leads already love each other as soon as the film opens so there’s not much draw there, and most of the “obstacles” that exist in Holiday Rush involve rich kids not getting a horse for Christmas. Not very compelling, but the film succeeds in the same way that all of these feather-weight Netflix Christmas movies do: by being likable rather than being interesting.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-