Finally! A Terrific Hallmark Hanukkah Movie!

Posted on December 13, 2023 at 10:47 pm

Hallmark has justifiably been criticized for its all-white, all-Christmas winter holiday movies, and then it was justifiably criticized for its first attempts at a Hanukkah movies, with problems that ranged from insensitivity and ignorance to outright failures (captioning describing a Hebrew prayer as Yiddish, for example).

Copyright Hallmark 2023

But “Round and Round,” written by Tamar Laddy of “Pretty Little Lies” is one of the best Hallmark movies ever, smart, funny, and romantic, with terrific chemistry between stars Vic Michaelis and Bryan Greenberg. The “Groundhog Day” story of a woman who gets stuck repeating the seventh night of Hanukkah is delightfully self-aware, with clever references to other time loop films and cultural touchstones. And the details of Hanukkah celebrations are grounded in experience and appreciation.

Highly recommended!

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Candy Cane Lane

Posted on November 30, 2023 at 5:32 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language throughout and some suggestive references
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic/fantasy peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2023

Copyright Amazon 2023
Chris (Eddie Murphy) loves Christmas so much his children are named Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson), Joy (Genneya Walton), and Holly (Madison Thomas). Possibly, it’s not a coincidence that his wife is named Carol (Tracee Ellis Ross). The family lives in the Southern California town of El Segundo, on a street called Candy Cane Lane that is famous for the elaborate Christmas (and, at one house, Hanukkah) decorations.

As the movie begins, Chris has an extra reason to try to win the competition for best decorations. His across-the-street neighbor Bruce (Ken Marino) has won the past four years. But this year, Chris has just been laid off and for the first time the local television channel that covers Candy Cane Lane is offering a $100,000 prize for the winner.

He discovers a pop-up Christmas store called Kringle’s, run by Pepper (Jillian Bell). He sees a gigantic tree-shaped, “!2 Days of Christmas”-themed decoration and buys it, so enthusiastic and in such a hurry to get it home that does not check to see how much it costs, not just in money, but in more. He signs without reading the fine print. It turns out Pepper was once an elf at the North Pole. She was thrown out for putting too many people on the Naughty list. Now she sets impossible tasks and when people cannot complete them she turns them into little ceramic Dickensian Christmas figurines, charmingly CGI-animated and endearingly voiced by Nick Offerman, Robin Thede, and Chris Redd, with the fabulous a cappella group Pentatonix as a carol-singing choir.

The “12 Days of Christmas” ornaments start to come to life, creating chaos at Carol’s job, just as she is up for a promotion and at Joy’s track meet, just as a scout from her dream college is in the stands (the lords a leaping are very impressive). The impossible task for Chris is to get the golden rings from each of the ornaments before midnight, or he will be trapped forever as one of the ceramic figures.

Murphy gives a lower-key, nearly anti-less performance than we’ve seen from him in the past, letting the concept and the special effects take the lead, with him grounding the fantasy by focusing on Chris as a devoted father. The strength of the family keeps the story from getting lost in the silliness. Some elements of the film are less successful, especially the cut-aways to the local television show, with one of the hosts increasingly irritated with the other. But it all comes together at the end, with David Alan Grier as Santa and a satisfying resolution for Chris and his family.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy peril and some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What made Chris and Carol change their minds about Joy’s school choice? What’s your favorite Christmas decoration?

If you like this, try: “Family Switch”

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Next Goal Wins

Posted on November 9, 2023 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and crude material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to very sad death of a child, comic vehicular injury
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2023

Copyright 2023 Searchlight
Two coaches are fired for dismal performance at the beginning of “Next Goal Wins,” the fact-based story of the worst professional soccer team in the world, based on the 2014 documentary of the same name. The team that not only never won a game but never scored a goal is on the tiny US territory of American Samoa. Still smarting after the worst defeat in the history of international soccer, 31-nil against Australia, Tavita (Oscar Knightley) reluctantly fires the team’s gentle coach, and announces he is bringing in someone from the outside world.

Meanwhile, in one of the funniest scenes of the year, Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is also being fired. To make it even more painful, the message is coming from the sport’s supervising panel, which includes his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Elisabeth Moss as Gail) and her new boyfriend (Will Arnett as Alex). They are not unsympathetic, but Tom’s performance and that of the team he coaches have deteriorated badly and they think he needs a chance of scene. There’s hardly a bigger change than a team in a tiny island on the other side of the world. Without any alternative, he goes, bringing a suitcase full of alcohol with him.

Taika Waititi, who co-wrote and directed the film and appears briefly as a minister, benefits from one of the most enduringly popular of all genres, the fact-based underdog team combined with the redemption arc for the coach story — think of “The Bad News Bears” or “A League of Our Own.” He is very aware of the minefield that is impossible to avoid in a story of people of color whose job in these stories is usually to be cute and a little bit simple and to be both enlightened by the more sophisticated, if troubled, white coach and to enlighten him as well with their folk wisdom. Waititi, who grew up in New Zealand with a white, Jewish mother and a Maori father, has a delicate touch, and calls out the issue explicitly a couple of times to let us know that these characters and this film may be whimsical, almost a fairy tale, but these are real people who are very aware of these tropes not just in stories, but in their lives. They even joke about not wanting Tom to be a white savior and about pretending to share mystical native wisdom to inspire him. There is gentle humor about the Samoans, but not at their expense. We do not get to know too many of the players, but Tavita and his wife Ruth, played by the wonderful Rachel House, have significant roles.

Waititi’s character almost winks at us as he introduces the film, telling us it is a true story “with a couple of embellishments.” But the parts you might guess are made up really did happen. One of the team’s star players was Jaiyah Saelua, a trans woman in our terms, but in Samoan culture a part of a third gender called fa’afafine that is not only accepted but cherished. In real life, Tom was supportive of Jaiyah without any hesitation, but the film adds some tension by giving Tom some trouble accepting Jaiyah (a heartfelt performance by non-binary actor Kaimana). And the basics of the story really happened, including the ignominious Australia game and how meaningful the experience was for Tom and the Team.

It is warm-hearted and endearing. It has the same appealingly modest tone that the team does; it just wants to have fun and score one goal.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drinking, a very sad off-screen death, a vehicular injury played for comedy, and some discussion of being uncomfortable around non-binary and trans people (note, in real life, as you can see in the documentary, Rongen was unhesitating and unequivocal in his support for the trans player).

Family discussion: Have you ever had a coach who made a difference in your life? What would you do if you were asked to coach this team?

If you like this, try; “A League of Their Own,” “The Damned United,” and “Ted Lasso”

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Quiz Lady

Posted on November 2, 2023 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, some injuries
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2023

Copyright 2023 Hulu
Sandra Oh and Awkwafina playing sisters in a comedy? Sign me up!  They’re two of my favorites. There’s one wild sister with blue hair extensions, big earrings, and no impulse control and one shy, serious sister who dresses in drab monotone and watches her favorite game show with her 20-year-old dog every night? Sounds like fun! And Oh, the dramatic actress from “Killing Eve” is playing the wild one and Awkwafina, the comic who first came to public attention with a song about her private parts is the shy, serious one? Wait, what?

Yep. And it is clear that both of them had a blast making this outrageous comedy, which makes it all the more fun for us. Oh plays Jenny Yum, ten years older than her younger sister, Anne (Awkwafina), the responsible one who works in a CPA office, where she stays in her cubicle as her co-workers celebrate a birthday because no one thought to invite her and she would not join them even if they had.

Jenny and Anne had a chaotic childhood. Their single mother was off partying and gambling. Jenny responded by getting as far away as soon as possible. She has failed after half-hearted attempts at several careers but has developed some survival skills, small-time scams, asking her sister for money, and suing a restaurant for a fish bone found in her filet. Anne takes care of their mother, now in assisted living. She devotes herself to Linguine, the dog Jenny left behind, and to her favorite television show, a “Jeopardy”-like competition called “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” The kindly, bow-tied host, Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell) is a stable force in her life, almost a father figure. She finds his nightly sign-off, “Don’t go anywhere; I know I won’t,” reassuring.

Their mother runs away from assisted living, leaving behind an $80,000 gambling debt. The sisters are given two weeks to pay it back, with the loan shark holding Linguine as hostage. Jenny thinks the only way to get the money is for Anne to win it on “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” Anne, who cannot bear to have anyone look at her, is horrified by the idea of being on television. But she is desperate to get Linguine back.

All of this is just an excuse for extended farce as the sisters interact with a powerhouse cast of supporting actors, including Holland Taylor as a grumpy neighbor who loves Alan Cumming, Tony Hale as the owner of a Ben Franklin-themed inn, and Jason Schwartzman as the quiz show’s smarmy current champion, with ultra-white teeth veneers that practically glow in the dark. Plus there’s a display of hundreds of bow ties that is the background for a very sweet conversation. Wild physical comedy and surreal interactions are grounded by the way the sisters begin to resolve their differences. It is funny, it is outrageous, and it is surprisingly tender-hearted.

Parents should know that this film has mature material including drinking and drug use (an extended humorous drug trip sequence), comic peril and violence and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Jenny and Anne respond so differently to the way they grew up? If you were trying to play charades with a member of your family, what could you do that no one else would understand?

If you like this, try: “Lucky Grandma” and “Rat Race”

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The Holdovers

Posted on November 2, 2023 at 5:25 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some drug use and brief sexual material
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, teen scuffles, references to wartime death, grief, and loss
Diversity Issues: Economic and racial diversity a theme of the movie, mental illness
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2023

(l-r.) Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
Barton is one of those posh boarding schools weighted with the history of generations of highly privileged, casually arrogant, hormonally charged teenager boys. “The Holdovers” takes place there over the Christmas holidays of 1969-70. Barton has buildings with just the slightest touch of casusually arrogant shabbiness found only where there are multiple generations of wealth and status who understand it’s much snobbier not to rush to fix and replace everything. And of course the buildings are surrounded by snowy expanses.

The faculty members have the crucial pedigree of having gone to Barton. This, of course, inspires respect and courtesy from the students. No it doesn’t! The students barely respect their prestigious and wealthy parents, but even they rank higher than someone who is still at Barton, decades after graduation. Perhaps the faculty member held most in contempt is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who has three strikes against him. He looks and smells weird. He teaches a class on Ancient Greece, which the students find useless and monumentally boring. And he is incorruptible and brutally strict. Even his former student, now the school’s headmaster, is furious with him for refusing to give the son of a powerful and wealthy donor a better grade, costing him his college admission.

That is how Hunham gets stuck with staying at the school over winter break, overseeing the students whose parents cannot or will not let them come home. They’re called the holdovers. The students are miserable, especially when they learn that they all have to bunk together in the infirmary because the heat to the dorms has been shut off, and that Hunham has a rigorous schedule of study and exercise planned for them. Everyone else has gone home for the holidays except for Mary Lamb, the head chef, who will be cooking for them. She is in mourning for her son, recently killed in Vietnam. He was a Barton graduate who could not get a draft deferment like his classmates because they could not afford college tuition. And she is played by an exceptionally moving Da’Vine Joy Randolph, so good in “Dolomite Is My Name” and briefly glimpsed this month in “Rustin” as Mahaliah Jackson.

We’ve all heard about the best-laid plans going awry. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced that terrible plans tend to go awry, too. So before too long, the other holdovers have been whisked away, all that are left are Hunham, Mary, and one smart, rebellious, deeply grieving, and extremely angry student who would have been graduating if he had not been kicked out of three other schools. That is Angus Tully, played with exactly that mix of qualities by newcomer Dominic Sessa.

Director Alexander Payne likes to make movies about people who are extremely passionate about issues others do not take too seriously. In “Election,” it’s a high school election. Who can forget one of the great moments in movie history, when one student calls out the ones who care about it. And we all remember this film’s star, Paul Giamatti, getting way too passionate about his disdain for merlot. In “Nebraska,” a senior citizen is over-committed to the idea he has won a sweepstakes.

Here, the always-brilliant Giamatti gives one of the best performances of the year as a kind of tribute to the bitter boarding school classics teacher in “The Browning Version,” and something of a classics version of a Miniver Cheevy, the only way he can make any sense of his lonely, disappointed, unappreciated life is to wrap himself up in a notion of antiquity that is vastly more honorable or at least understandable than what he has. In his mind, every failed student his his “no, in thunder!” to the weak ambiguities and moral compromises and overall unfairness of the modern world. The students — and the other faculty — may be younger, more handsome, richer, more confident, more popular, and more privileged than he is, but Hunham can still feel superior about what he has decided matters more, like his fondness for the the Meditation of Marcus Aurelius.

Mary, Hunham, and Angus each in their own way stuck, have experiences, adventures, mistakes, confidences, and expanded understandings over the course of the holidays. Each scene is a small gem, the ensemble work is as good as it gets, the screenplay by David Hemingson is smart, funny, and touching, and the superb cinematography by Eigil Bryld captures the chilly landscape of the almost-deserted school and the warmth of some of the other locations. This is one of the best films of the year, with career best work by all involved.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, some peril and injury, family conflicts, mental illness, loss and grief, drinking and drunkenness, smoking, and some drug use.

Family discussion: What should the teachers in charge of students left behind over the holidays do? What are the differences between the time period of the movie and today?

If you like this, try: “The Browning Version” and its remake — both good, but I prefer the original with Michael Redgrave

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