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Films I Neglected To Review: Hang On To Yourself
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Croods: A New Age," "Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square," "The Happiest Season," "Lovers Rock," "The Mystery of D.B. Cooper," "Stardust" and "Uncle Frank,"

In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose that I should mention upfront that either I never got around to seeing "The Croods," the 2013 animated hit about the misadventures of a prehistoric family, or that it proved to be, despite the presence of a cast that included the likes of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone and Catherine Keener, too innocuous to remember. Based on how completely threadbare the sequel, "The Croods: A New Age," is, my guess is that if I didn't see the original, I may not have been missing too much. Still roaming the world in search of a suitable place to settle down, the Croods--dad Grug (Cage), mom Ugga (Keener), spunky teen daughter Eep (Stone), her recently acquired sweetheart Guy (Ryan Reynolds), dopey son Thunk (Clark Duke) and sassy Gran (Cloris Leachman)--end up crossing paths with the more evolved Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann) and their sheltered-but-spunky teen daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), a family that Guy knew when he was younger. Inevitably, the two families begin to clash but when Grug and Phil find a common point of interest--the former fears that Guy will take his beloved Eep away to start their own tribe and the latter believes that Dawn is a much better match for Guy--they attempt to hatch a plot to make their wishes come true and, as was often the case in prehistoric times, this leads to the two of them and Guy being kidnapped by an army of punch monkeys and the others being forced to put their differences aside in order to rescue them in the nick of time. The result is the usual array of wacky music cues, garish visuals and dumb jokes that will make most viewers of a certain age yearn for the comparative subtlety of a Gazoo-centric "Flintstones" episode. Yes, little kids will probably enjoy all the colorful silliness and older viewers may get a couple of chuckles out of some of Cage's more offbeat line readings but if there is going to be any more of these down the line, I can only hope that an accelerated form of evolution occurs during the scripting phase.

Like practically every sentient human being, I regard Dolly Parton as the closest thing that we currently have to a living national treasure--perhaps the one person in these fractured times who is equally beloved by everybody. I am so in awe of her, in fact, that even though I have developed a lifelong antipathy towards most Christmas-themed movies, I still found myself relatively eager to see her new Netflix offering, "Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square" despite the fact that just the promos for it contained enough cheese to supply all the pizza makers in Chicago for nearly a week. Borrowing liberally from any number of sources, the film tells the story of the fabulously rich and deeply embittered Regina (Christine Baranski), who chooses the holiday season to inform the cheerful denizens of the small town where she grew up that she has sold everything to a developer intent on transforming it into the world's biggest shopping mall (which should be the first indication that the film is a fantasy). As for Parton, when we first see her, she is the town's sole panhandler (though it appears that she is using all the change she acquires to feed her crippling mascara habit) but it turns out that she is really an angel--screenwriter Maria Schlatter has thoughtfully named her Angel to prevent any confusion amongst viewers (later on, we learn that the town pastor is name "Christian")--working as part of an effort to get Regina to change her ways. In many ways, the film is fairly insufferable--the story drags in so many elements designed to tug at the heartstrings that when the requisite adorable little girl is run over by a car while visiting her mother's grave and lands in a coma, only to (Spoiler Alert) make a miraculous Christmas Eve recovery, it almost gets lost amidst all the other concurrent epiphanies and while there are plenty of songs on display, the fact that most of them are not sung by Parton does not exactly help matters much. That said, while the film is the kind of hollow, manipulative drivel that makes you long for the comparative subtlety of that Mexican-made movie where Santa and Satan battled for the soul of a little girl, "Christmas in the Square" still has a couple of assets that even the biggest of churls would be hard-pressed to deny. For one, while I doubt that Christine Baranski fans will regard this as one of her great performances, she certainly knows how to tear into a line with enough vigor to often make it seem much funnier than it actually is. The other, of course, is Parton, who is enough of a delight that you can almost forget how tedious and shameless the film is as a whole as long as she is up there on the screen. To be fair, those who do thrive on holiday-related nonsense will probably embrace it and I am happy for them. For everyone else, I guess they can derive some comfort from the fact that despite all of its artistic sins, and they are legion, at least it is somewhat better than "Straight Talk."

I am also an enormous fan of Kristen Stewart but not even her talents are enough to rescue "Happiest Season," an even more off-putting stab at would-be holiday whimsy that comes across like a shotgun wedding between the usual Hallmark Channel piffle and the still-odious-after-all-these-years "La Cage Aux Folles." She plays Abby and as the film opens, her girlfriend of more than a year, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), in a fit of holiday revelry, invites her to come spend the holidays with her well-to-do family, whom Abby has never met. Just before they arrive, however, Harper drops several bombshells--she lied about coming out to her parents, they are under the impression that Abby is merely her roommate and she can't say anything about the real nature of their relationship while they are there because her dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor and having a gay daughter would certainly doom his campaign. Because she loves Harper, Abby agrees to keep her secret and over the next couple of days, she finds herself trying to keep her sanity while contending with Harper's controlling mother (Mary Steenburgen), her ultra-competitive sisters (Alison Brie and Mary Holland) and Harper's old high school boyfriend (Jake McDorman), who is still clearly carrying a torch. Barely keeping her off of the ledge are wacky best pal John (Dan Levy) and Riley (Aubrey Plaza), another old school acquaintance of Harper's who is able to relate to Abby's current situation.

Making her feature directorial debut (she also co-wrote the screenplay with Holland), actress Clea Duvall is clearly trying to do a LGBTQ-friendly variation on the standard Christmas-themed froth that arrives in droves every year at this time. That is a noble enough idea, I suppose, but it is done in by two fatal flaws. The first is that instead of really reworking the standard tropes through a brand-new perspective, she is content to just go through the usual motions and the moments that do tap into a more overtly queer sensibility are awkward at best--in one especially odd moment, Abby is trying to sneak up to Harper's room and literally has to hide in a closet in order to avoid getting caught. The bigger problem, however, is that the indignities that Abby faces as a result of Harper's own cowardice are so extreme that when the screenplay finally arrives at its contrived attempt at a happy ending, I found myself wishing that Abby would a.) tell Harper and her family to go to hell and b.) set fire to their house before c.) running off with Riley to a far more promising future than she might otherwise have. In their smaller roles, Levy and Plaza do score and while this will not rate highly on Stewart's future Lifetime Achievement Award highlight reel, she does give the lame material a considerable amount of effort--far more than it ultimately deserves when all is said and done.

Last week saw the arrival of "Mangrove," the wonderful first entry of Steve McQueen's ambitious five-film "Small Axe" series chronicling life among London's West Indian community spanning the late Sixties to the early Eighties. Arriving this week is the second installment, "Lovers Rock," and as good as its predecessor was, it is even better. Eschewing that film's anger for a palpable sense of joy (though one not entirely devoid of tensions), the film is set almost entire during an all-night house party where a large group has gathered to drink, flirt and dance to the music being spun by a couple of DJs whose enthusiasm is perhaps greater than their technical finesse. There is promise of potential romance in the form of Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), who meet for the first time and find an attraction developing between them over the course of the night. Like all long parties, there are darker moments as well, in the form of a barely averted sexual assault and the unexpected arrival of Martha's cousin (Kedar Williams-Stirling), who seems determined to stir up some shit before also getting lost in the music. For the most part, however, McQueen offers a deliriously thrilling portrait of people losing themselves, at last for a few hours, to revelry (in perhaps the most glorious moment, at the conclusion of a dance to the Janet Kay song "Silly Games," the people who were dancing to it continue the moment by spontaneously breaking out into an a cappella rendition) and does so in such a way that you can practically feel the heat emanating from the swaying bodies on the packed dance floor. (Even the wallpaper appears to be sweating after a while.) There may be complaints from some people, especially in the wake of "Mangrove," that there is not much to speak of in the way of a story--what little dialogue there is comes across mostly in snatches barely heard above the din of the music and the closest thing to a dramatic through line is the stuff between Martha and Franklyn--but those who are able to work around the lack of narrative drive and lose themselves to the riot of sensory overload that McQueen supplies instead are likely to find it one of the most memorable film experiences of the year.

Even though it occurred nearly a half-century ago, the case of D.B. Cooper--the mysterious man who boarded and quietly hijacked a 727 on November 24, 1971 with a suitcase allegedly filled with explosives, received $200,000 and four parachutes as his demand and then jumped out of the plane in mid-air, never to be seen again--has inflamed imaginations, partially due to the sheer audacity of the crime and partially because it remains the only officially unsolved hijacking on record. "The Mystery of D.B. Cooper" not only explores both the legend and the facts behind the crime via interviews with people who were on the plane as the crime was being committed and by following the stories of four different groups of people, each of whom is convinced that a friend or loved one was the actual D.B. Cooper. Obviously, at least three of those people have to be lying, deliberately or not, but as they tell their stories, all four of them come across as reasonably plausible and undeniably interesting tales in their own rights. The film, which is part of a five-film anthology appearing over the next few weeks on HBO Max, does not exactly reinvent the documentary form but director John Fowler does an effective job of recounting the saga in a clean and straightforward manner that will be of interest to both those who have never heard of Cooper before and those who have been following the case for years while finding a balance between celebrating Cooper as a symbol for someone who stuck it to the system and got away with it and condemning him as a common thief whose escapades put many people in jeopardy. Whether it comes to any specific conclusions or not, I will leave for you to discover but "The Mystery of D.B. Cooper" is more interested in exploring the need for modern myth-making than in supplying answers and in that regard, it is a success.

Presumably launched into production in the immediate wake of the success of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Rocket Man," "Stardust" is a biopic on the early days of David Bowie that clearly hopes to do for the rick legend what those films did, respectively, for Freddie Mercury and Elton John but ends up doing more or less what the film version of "Wired" did for John Belushi--virtually nothing. Essentially a variation of "Green Book" with art rock as the music of choice, the focus is on Bowie (Johnny Flynn) and his first trip to the U.S. in 1971, in the wake of his moderate hit "Space Oddity," to promote his latest album, "The Man Who Sold the World" despite its rejection by both the record-buying public and his own record company. Alas, due to a visa snafu, Bowie is forbidden to actually perform any formal concerts during his stay--all he can do to promote himself is third-rate under-the-radar gigs (including one at a convention for vacuum cleaner salesmen) and interviews in which he finds himself unable to properly articulate his artistic vision to journalists. Accompanying Bowie on his journey is Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), the lone guy at his label who genuinely believes that Bowie has what it takes to go all the way.

The end result is a weird, cheap-looking film that feels like a quick ripoff designed to ride on the coattails of a more elaborate film version of Bowie's life that has yet to appear.The screenplay is a mess of obnoxiously on-the-nose dialogue and clunky flashbacks to Bowie's life with his mentally unstable older brother (Derek Moran), whose battles with schizophrenia are offered as a pat explanation for Bowie's love of changing personalities throughout his career, While it was probably wishful thinking to believe that an actor could be found who could perfectly embody Bowie’s unique combination of white-hot charisma and cool mystery, surely there must have been a better choice out there than Flynn, who does bear a passing resemblance to early-Seventies Bowie but demonstrates absolutely no feel for who he might have been like beyond the surface level. Then to top things off, since this film was made without the permission of Bowie's family, it does not include any of his actual songs, leading to the odd sight (and sound) of a David Bowie biopic where we hear more songs from Anthony Newley than Bowie himself. (When Bowie is seen singing, he is doing songs like Jacques Brel's "My Death" that he occasionally covered back then.) Unless you are a connoisseur of unconvincing wigs--which this film has in abundance--"Stardust" is a total waste of time and perhaps the most embarrassing thing to be associated with the Bowie name since those stupid suits he wore back in the Tin Machine era.

The "Green Book" template turns up again in "Uncle Frank," a dual coming-of-age/coming out drama from writer-director Alan Ball that starts off on a reasonably promising note before descending into the kind of unconvincing histrionics that will make most viewers yearn for the relative subtlety of "Happiest Season." It begins in 1969 with 14-year-old Beth (Sophia Lillis) dreaming of someday escaping the backwater South Carolina town where she lives with her family and seeing the world. She is encouraged in this by her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who did just that--he now teaches at NYU--and whose rare returns home are marked by the obvious coldness that his father (Stephen Root) demonstrates towards him for absolutely no evident reason. Four years later, driven by Frank's encouragement, Beth is now attending NYU and it takes only one surprise appearance at a party at Frank's apartment to discover that he is gay and living with his lover or ten years, Wally (Peter Macdissi). Almost immediately after this revelation, a call comes announcing that Frank's father has just died and since this is a movie, an especially contrived reason crops up that requires him and Beth to make the trip back home for the funeral by car instead of plane. To make things even more complicated, despite insisting that Wally stay behind, he winds up tagging along as well, which is just as well so that he can be around when Frank's drinking problem, unresolved issues with his dad and haunting memories over what drove a wedge between them in the first place come together in a giant mass of melodramatic plot developments.

The early scenes of "Uncle Frank" are by far the best, mostly because of the convincing relationship that develops between Beth and her beloved uncle--to her, he is the one person in her entire family who seems to actually see her as a real person instead of as an oddball and to him, she reminds him of himself at her age and says all the right things to encourage to her to set her sights higher in life than her family and friends have. Nicely written and well acted by Lillis and Bettany, these scenes offer the promise of a potentially fascinating film but it is at this point that Ball apparently lost faith in the story he was telling. Instead, he shifts into road movie mode and indulges in the usual array of cliched incidents that feel especially hollow in comparison to the freshness of the opening moments. When they finally arrive back home with Frank still trying to keep his secret alive, the screenplay shifts to over-the-top melodrama—the kind straight out of Grace Metalious's wastebasket--before arriving at a thoroughly unconvincing happy ending that doesn’t even try to resolve any of the inherent issues in a satisfactory manner. In a way, "Uncle Frank" is even more of a misfire than "Happiest Season" because while that one is clearly leaning into the same campy cliches as countless other holiday-related films over the years. This one, on the other hand, seems to think that it is trying for something deeper and more personal but after the admittedly effective opening scenes, it just becomes an exercise in cliched storytelling that viewers are likely to find more frustrating than edifying.

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originally posted: 11/25/20 14:29:43
last updated: 11/25/20 14:44:21
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