Films I Neglected To Review: The Godmother Coda

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/04/20 04:41:50

Please enjoy short reviews of "Dear Santa," "Godmothered," "Half Brothers," "Ikarie XB-1," "Red, White and Blue" and "Sound of Metal."

There will be many holiday movies popping up over the next couple of weeks--some good, some terrible and some even featured in this column--but for all of their talk about peace and love and whatnot, my guess is that very few of them will represent the holiday spirit in its most idealistic form than the new documentary "Dear Santa." The subject is Operation Santa, a program initiated by the U.S. Post Office 113 years ago that strives to help Santa answer as many of the letters that children (and even some adults) send to Santa each year with the help of an army of volunteers. These people range from a postal worker in Chico, California who was displaced by the 2018 wildfires and who wants to help families who also had heir lives turned upside down by that event to a volunteer who once a beneficiary of the program and who is determined to make sure that as many people as possible feel the way that he did when he opened that long-ago gift. As the film progresses, director Dana Nachman lets us watch as they go about trying to fulfill the sometimes amusing and sometimes heartbreaking wishes that they have chosen. For the most part, "Dear Santa" is little more than an infomercial for the Operation Santa program but considering the good works that the organization has done, only the most churlish of people would criticize it on those grounds. Although filled with any number of sad tales, this is a genuine feel-good movie that can remind families about the true spirit of the season and what more, it manages to do so without giving away any trade secrets involving the title character.

Those in the mood for a more typical and far less effective bit of holiday-themed nonsense--the kind that is as bright and gaudy and empty as a package found underneath a department store tree--may prefer the innocuous likes of "Godmothered" instead. A knockoff hybrid of "Elf" and "Enchanted" that doesn't even attempt to disguise its lack of originality, it stars Jillian Bell as Eleanor, a fairy-godmother-in-training who learns that her entire profession is in danger of elimination since no one actually believes in such things anymore. Determined to prove that the belief is still out there, she comes across a single mislaid letter from a 10-year-old girl named Mackenzie asking for help and rushes off to Earth to make her dreams comes true. Alas, when she arrives in Boston, she discovers that Mackenzie is now a 40-year-old widow (Isla Fisher) who is struggling to raise two young daughters while working for a sleazy news program and who is long beyond any belief in the concept of "happily ever after." Nevertheless, Eleanor persists--now under the gun after learning that the head fairy godmother (Jane Curtin) is going to rescind her powers if she doesn't return immediately--and the film unfold an array of whimsies, tearful emotional breakthroughs and other epiphanies that are so unsubtle that the last name of the quietly handsome co-worker (Santiago Cabrera) who would be perfect for Mackenzie literally has the last name of Prince.

Right from the start, "Godmothered" announces itself as not being your typical fairy tale and spends much of its running time upending the expected cliches of the form (before inevitably restoring to them in the final moments). Of course, so many films and television shows have taken a similar approach to the fairy tale format over the years that I cannot readily recall the last time that I saw one that was completely straightforward and unironic. The problem here is that the film doesn't find a particularly fresh take for such an approach--as, to give one example, the wonderful and perennially underrated "Ella Enchanted" did once upon a time--and as a result, the whole thing feels too familiar for its own good. The film also suffers from the odd decision to cast Bell as the relentlessly cheery Eleanor and Fisher as the cynical Mackenzie--each one does the best they can with the shopworn material but it isn't hard to imagine that it might have been improved somewhat if they had switched parts in order to play roles that better suited their respective screen personas. There are enough instances of slapstick silliness to amuse undemanding kids and I suppose there were one or two moments where I smiled as well (though it is telling that it has been less than 48 hours since I watched it that I am writing this and I am at a loss to recall what those moments might have been). For the most part, "Godmothered" is a blandly tedious affair and at a certain point, most viewers will come to the realization that any ending would be a happy one as long as it arrived sooner than later.

"Half Brothers" is a film that essentially has two tonally different storylines at its center with the more sincere and low-key, if awkward, one too often being kicked to the side for the broadly comedic and largely irritating one that is dominating the promotional campaign. On the eve of his wedding to single mother Pamela (Pia Watson), successful Mexican aviation executive Renato (Luis Gerardo Mendez) gets a call from America summoning him to the deathbed of his father, Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinosa) , who left home 26 years earlier to earn money for his family and never returned. Spurred on by his fiancee, who hopes that getting closure with his father will allow him to finally develop a relationship with her weirdo son, Renato goes and discovers that he has a heretofore unknown half-brother, wacky slacker Asher (Connor Del Rio). After he passes, it turns out that Flavio has designed an elaborate emotional scavenger hunt for the two to take that will mirror his own journey and hopefully allow them to better understand the things that he did. Renato wants nothing to do with this, and rightfully so, but since that would result in a very short movie, he eventually winds up hitting the road with Asher and (Spoiler Alert) even though they get on each others nerves at first, they slowly begin to bond and they uncover the mystery of the man who connects them via a series of extended flashbacks.

The flashback scenes are the ones that are the most successful. This is not to say that they are at all perfect--they are occasionally awkward, occasionally contrived and too often feel like Cheech Marin's underrated "Born in East L.A." played at the wrong speed--but they at least show some degree of interest in showing the contemporary immigrant experience through the eyes of an ordinary man and the best moments demonstrate a genuine sense of sincerity on the part of director Luke Greenfield that one might not necessarily suspect existed in the auteur of "The Animal," "The Girl Next Door" and "Let's Be Cops." On the other hand, the stuff with the brothers on the road trip feels as if Greenfield is trying to deliver an exact replica of the comedic stylings of Todd Phillips and unfortunately, he succeeds all too well. The big comedic set pieces strain believability (at one point early on, Asher elects to steal a goat from a roadside zoo for no other evident reason than someone decided that having a goat in the backseat would make for instant laughs) and the two brothers are so smugly annoying in their respective ways that when reach their respective catharses that supposedly allow them to become better people, they don't feel earned and wind up undercutting whatever emotional power that they might have had. If the film had stripped away the nonsense involving the jerk brothers and the tedious road trip and focused more on Flavio's story, it might have resulted in a worthwhile effort. As it is, "Half Brothers" is pretty much only half a movie.

"Ikarie XB-1" is a 1963 science-fiction film from Czechoslovakia loosely based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (whose writings also inspired the classic "Solaris") and a fairly elaborate and serious-minded example of the genre for that particular time. However, this is not precisely the film that American audiences would see when it turned up on these shores a year later. For that release, American-International Pictures picked up the rights and sent it out to theaters (sometimes on a double bill with "Godzilla vs The Thing") in a version titled "Voyage to the End of the Universe" that was about 10 minutes shorter, awkwardly dubbed into English and given a brand-new ending that eschewed the poetic mystery of the original cut for a dumb and gimmicky twist finale that wasn't even all that unique back then. For decades, it was all but impossible to see Jindrich Polak's film in this country in its original form but now has been given a digital restoration to its initial presentation and the results will no doubt be of interest to anyone interested in the genre. Set in the year 2163, it follows the voyage of the starship Ikarie XB-1 and its 40-member multinational crew as they take a 28-month journey to Alpha Centauri to investigate a mysterious "White Planet" orbiting it. Instead of elaborate battle with hordes of alien forces, the story is more concerned with the crew as they go about their duties while trying to adjust to the pressures of working in such an environment and dealing with such hurdles as a derelict 20th century craft still armed with nuclear weapons, a radioactive cloud and a member of the crew, who suffers a breakdown and threatens to destroy the ship in a misguided effort to head back home.

As an example of the genre that favors intellectual ideas over cheesy action and special effects, the film does work but it is probably of most interest to contemporary viewers for the apparent evidence that it seems to have had on two of the most famous sci-fi titles of all time. The notion of a crew of multiple nationalities working together for the common good definitely has some echoes of what would emerge a couple of years later on the TV series "Star Trek." More significantly, the look of the film definitely seems to have influenced Stanley Kubrick, who is believed to have seen it as one of the numerous films that he screened while researching the project that would become "2001: A Space Odyssey." Considering that Janus Films is behind this re-release, one has to assume that the film will eventually become a part of the Criterion Collection and if that is the case, I hope that they are able to spring for the rights to "Voyage to the End of the Universe" so that viewers will be able to check out both versions to see how much it changed on its way to these shores and to get a fuller appreciation of just how much "Ikarie XB-1" got right the first time around.

Set in the early 1980s, "Red, White and Blue," the third installment of Steve McQueen's five-part "Small Axe" collection, focuses on Leroy Logan (John Boyega), an idealistic young black man who, although having studied to become a forensic scientist, is encouraged by others to join the police force as a regular constable, especially since the London Police are actively looking for candidates like him as a way to combat the feeling in the Afro-Caribbean community that it is a racist institution. Even though both he and his father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), have suffered at the hands of racist police, Leroy, much to his father's chagrin, signs up with the stated hope that he can help to change things from within. The sounds great to his recruiters--he even becomes the face of a promotional recruitment campaign when he earns the top marks in his class during training--but one he hits the streets in his uniform, he is dismissed by many of the people from his neighborhood for betraying them and discriminated against by many of his colleagues, who scrawl racist graffiti on his locker fail to back him up during a potentially dangerous pursuit and get promoted over him despite their comparatively less stellar records. At first, Leroy is determined to plow ahead and make things right but eventually is forced to recognize the fact that the institutional racism among the police may be baked in so completely that the only real hope is to tear it all down and start over again.

Of the three "Small Axe" films that I have seen so far, "Red, White and Blue" is easily the least of them but that is mostly because one of them has to take that particular title. This is not to say that it is a bad movie by any means but of the three, it tells the most familiar story of the bunch and lacks the depth and poignance of "Mangrove" and the exhilarating tactile energy of "Lovers Rock." Now, having said that, I hasten to add that it is still a film that is well worth seeing for any number of reasons. Without making a heavy-handed point of it, McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland present a narrative that works as a historical document of how things were back in the day while at the same time making the subtle but powerful point that those very same issues continue to exist to this very day with no easy end in sight. The film gains additional emotional depth from the spirited and powerful performances by Boyega and Toussaint as the father and son whose own relationship is threatened by the pervasiveness of institutional racism--their final scene together is one of the strongest to be seen in any movie this year. The only bum note comes from a somewhat jarring "Star Wars" reference in one of Boyega's scenes that must have seemed like a welcome bit of humor at the time it was shot but which now sticks out like a sore thumb. That problem aside, "Red, White and Blue" is still a more than worthy watch and helps to elevate the entire "Small Axe" program from a collection of excellent (so far) movies into one of the most impressive and necessary cinematic events of 2020.

As the fascinating new drama "Sound of Metal" opens, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a former heroin addict who now channels his energies into pounding the drums for the noise-rock duo that he performs in with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), finds his entire existence turned upside-down when the constant ringing in his ears suddenly drops away to the point where virtually all sound is now muffled to the point of complete incomprehensibility. Threatened with the loss of not just his career but the very thing that has allowed him to keep himself together both physically and spiritually since giving up drugs, he finds himself at increasingly loose ends and while he tries to deny what has happened, he eventually agrees to Louís insistence that they scrap their tour and he enter a remote facility for deaf addicts to help him adjust to his new reality and to avoid slipping into old habits. Like any addict, Ruben doesn't think that he has a problem--after learning about an expensive cochlear implant, he is convinced that his deafness is only temporary (pointedly ignoring the doctor's admonition that the operation is not a guaranteed success by any means)--and this puts him at odds with Joe (Paul Raci), the gentle soul and former addict who runs the facility and who pointedly does not consider his deafness, which he acquired while fighting in Vietnam, as a handicap but as an integral part of who he is. Although Ruben makes strides to ingratiate himself with the community, his all-consuming need to get back to the world of noise that gave him a sense of purpose leads to a split between them.

I have seen any number of films dealing with the subject of addiction and recovery over the years but few have been as unique as this effort from director Darius Marder. The screenplay, which he co-wrote with Abraham Marder, is one that consistently finds new angles for telling its story and deftly manages to avoid nearly all of the expected cliches. It sees its characters as people, not just as symbols, and invests all of them with such humanity that we actually do care what happens to them--this is especially true during the surprisingly powerful final scenes here, which end up having an enormous emotional payoff as a result. From a cinematic standpoint, the film is also a standout, especially in regards to the ingenious sound design used to put us directly into Ruben's mindset in a way to help us understand where he is coming from even when his actions seem to fly in the face of common sense. Also driving the film is the incredible lead performance from Ahmed, a live-wire turn as powerful, wrenching and heartbreaking as any that has appeared in a movie this year. Granted, "Sound of Thunder" may sound a bit too grim and punishing for some viewers on the surface but I promise you that the result is one of the most original and exhilarating movies around right now.

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