The Movie Buff Reviews – “Ford v Ferrari,” “Last Christmas”

The Movie Buff Reviews – “Ford v Ferrari,” “Last Christmas”

Instead of a regular review today, I thought I’d compile a couple of different reviews that I’ve written for The Movie Buff, which has a new theme going which looks really awesome. The reviews include a pair of new releases – Ford v Ferrari and Last Christmas – as well as four reviews I did for the site’s Mob Movie March, which they run every year. Anyway, here are snippets from the reviews and links to where you can read them.

Ford v Ferrari – “The highs and lows of the film are amazing and this is my favourite sports film of the year, and one of my favourites of the year in general. It’s not a traditional sports movie, but I would classify it as one just because it’s so inspiring and the competition is so exciting. It has also has two key races where both have high stakes and feel rewarding in some way.” Read the review hereand I gave this one an A+

The Christmas film based on Wham!‘s song of the same name, Last Christmas – “I know sappy romance is predictable but I was frustrated with its mediocrity. The good scenes come at the wrong time, as Clarke’s rendition of “Last Christmas” should be a highlight, but I just wanted the film to end by that point. I also cry at every film, and this one never hooked me on an emotional level, which really tells that this doesn’t work for me.” You can read the review here. This review was also part of the site’s “Fall in Love February” marathon, which I also did as my 29 Days of Romance on my site. Thanks for the idea, Mark. 

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Henry Golding and Emilia Clarke in Last Christmas. (IMDb)

The first review I submitted for the site’s Mob Movie March was Angels with Dirty Faces, the film that inspired the Angels with Filthy Souls film in Home Alone. “It’s [James] Cagney’s performance that brings a lot of the charm to this film. That’s especially the case in his scenes with the ‘Dead End’ Kids and how they look up to him… I like the film’s ideas that they idolize a gangster because he just looks so cool. Jerry says he can’t teach honesty when the gangsters show dishonesty is the better policy. “A hoodlum or a gangster is looked up to with the same respect as the successful businessman or popular hero,” Jerry tells Rocky.” You can read the review here

I reviewed the Joe Pesci “comedy” 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. Here’s the excerpt: “At one point, I thought that the film could either be better or get even worse if the heads interacted with the characters. Late in the film, it opens that Pandora’s Box in a nightmare scenes where the heads, lined up on a motel dresser, sing a rendition of “Mr. Sandman” (just Mr. Hitman) at Tommy where their respective bodies crash through the walls and strangle Tommy. Suffice to say, the film answers my question by being a different breed of terrible.” You can read the review here.

Okay, two more reviews. I also reviewed the 2005 film The Ice Harvest with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, which has been on my watchlist for awhile. “It’s foremost a mob movie but also a Christmas film by default. It doesn’t have any of the traditional Christmas cheer, but has all the cynical cheer that embodies the characters of Ebenezer Scrooge or The Grinch. This film’s mantra is a line written in Sharpie on several bathroom walls: “As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls.” A sort-of “all that could go wrong will go wrong,” or The Grinch’s equivalent of wrestling with his own-self loathing.” You can read the review here.

My last review for Mob Movie March was for the 2015 film, Legend. “I’ll just talk about the best part of “Legend” straight away—and that’s Tom Hardy’s dual performance. Watching him make these two characters feel so distinct from each other is masterclass. He completely elevates this material, and without him this would have been straight-up bad for me.” Read the review here.

 

Noelle (2019)

Noelle (2019)

Directed by: Marc Lawrence. Starring: Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley Maclaine. Runtime: 1h 40 min. Released: November 12, 2019.

This review contains spoilers.

When Santa Claus dies, the mantle is handed down to his son Nick Kringle (Bill Hader), but he’s scared to take on the role and runs away to Phoenix. His sister, Noelle Kringle (Anna Kendrick) must track him down and bring him back so they can save Christmas.

Noelle has some solid fish-out-of-water humour as Noelle goes to Phoenix to find her brother, which gives it an Elf vibe and there’s nothing wrong with channeling a great movie. I’m also convinced that Anna Kendrick makes any film better and it’s no different here as she brings such a charm to this film. Kendrick truly embodies Christmas spirit as Noelle, as Noelle herself learns what Christmas is all about. Bill Hader’s also good as her brother Nick, and their chemistry is enjoyable. Like Kendrick, Hader can make any film better. Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine) who helps Noelle is also great acting alongside her.

The story itself is predictable, but to be fair, it would be an honest challenge to find a Christmas film that isn’t predictable. Of course we know by the end that Noelle becomes Santa, but it’s the journey that matters. Some of the moments where everyone but her notices that should be the real Santa are sweet, notably when she speaks to a young girl using sign language though she doesn’t know sign language, as only natural Santa’s have a knowledge of every language. Noelle is a good character in her own right, but Kendrick and her general wholesomeness really makes her come alive.

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Anna Kendrick in Noelle. (IMDb)

A problem with the story here is a lack of conflict. The main conflict is getting Nick back to the North Pole so they can save Christmas because of the Christmas deadline. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, Mrs. Claus (the delightful Julie Hagerty) is stressing because the interim Santa Claus isn’t working out. By the way, Noelle isn’t simply handed the Santa reigns from the start because the role of Santa is “traditionally” played by a man. This interim Santa is their cousin Gabriel Kringle (Billy Eichner) who works in the technology department. He wants to take some of the joy out of Christmas and deliver presents by drone, and he also comes up with an algorithm for the naughty and nice list that only has less than 3,000 “nice” children in the world because all the kids have minor infractions. The film dips its foot into this conflict but it never really feels like it comes into fruition as it’s all talk. The conflict would be nice, though it would have felt like the Toy Santa villain plot in The Santa Clause 2 if it had actually embraced it, and instead feels like filler.

Noelle’s “friendship” interest here is private investigator Jake Hapman (Kingsley Ben-Adir) who helps her find Nick in Phoenix. Her relationship with this man is fine and it’s unclear throughout if it’s platonic or a love interest, or just a friendship based on the spirit of Christmas and helping each other out. Either way, they’re fine together and Noelle’s friendship and kindness to his son Alex (Maceo Smedley) is charming.

Despite its flaws, I think Noelle is a good film as Anna Kendrick’s performance just distracts so well from any shortcomings, and it’s fun throughout, too. It’s also a solid first effort at an original film on the Disney+ service. And in terms of Christmas movies, I don’t know if I’d watch this every year, but Anna Kendrick would sure make me consider it.

Score: 70/100

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Directed by: Tim Miller. Starring: Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Runtime: 2h 8 min. Released: November 1, 2019.

In Terminator: Dark Fate, an augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) must stop an advanced liquid Terminator – a REV-9 (Gabriel Luna) – from hunting down a young girl, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), whose fate is critical to the human race.

It seems that the best way to breathe some life into a franchise is just to go back to the well and do the same thing over again. That’s what this does as it has a lot of similarities to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. They do a lot of the same things, especially with the REV-9 villain, who is basically just the T-1000, who’s made of liquid metal. The REV-9 is just regular liquid and this one’s new trick is turning into two separate Terminator’s.

Linda Hamilton works well here as Sarah Connor as for the past 20 or so years, she’s been answering anonymous texts that lead her to where Terminators will be. And she kills them, at least most of the time. That’s how she crosses paths with Grace protecting Dani Ramos. Dani is a fine John Connor substitute in this film and learning about her future is interesting. Mackenzie Davis is great as Grace, and she shows some true action star potential. I’ve only seen her in a couple mediocre comedies, but she’s impressive here.

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Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes in Terminator: Dark Fate. (IMDb)

What they do with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is interesting, too. He’s still the T-800 but named Carl as he’s adapted to human life after accomplishing his mission and staying in our time. The dynamic between the T-800 and Sarah Connor is fiery and tense. Schwarzenegger’s performance is most enjoyable if you don’t try to make sense of the Terminator timeline, because it really doesn’t make sense.

The action in the film is also exciting and there are some good action set pieces. There’s a point where there’s a fatigue with the action, because the film feels long at 128 minutes, but it’s still worthwhile for the most part. The film doesn’t do a lot of anything new but considering Terminator: Salvation isn’t that great and Terminator: Genisys is just a mess, this is a welcome treat.

A little rinse and repeat goes a long way for this sequel that would be an appropriate send-off for the franchise because, while it’s set up for a sequel, I don’t think we necessarily need anything further from this story. We arguably didn’t need this one but I’m glad we got it – it’s just a bit of a shame this story couldn’t have been the fourth film in the franchise in the mid-2000’s when people still kind-of cared about Terminator.

Score: 70/100

The Two Popes (2019)

The Two Popes (2019)

Directed by: Fernando Mereilles. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin. Runtime: 2h 5 min. Released: December 20, 2019.

Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) as he aims to step down from the Papacy, and the liberal future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) as they find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.

Blending comedy and drama and strong dialogue from writer Anthony McCarten, The Two Popes is fascinating as it shows Pope Francis’ past life as Jorge Borgoglio (through actor Juan Minujin) as we see his mistakes and his humanitarian efforts, as he tries to improve himself as a person. It’s intriguing learning about his past life, as most of us only know him as Pope Francis.

The film feels like we’re given a tour within the Vatican walls as we get a glimpse into a very human friendship that grows from understanding and compromise. The cinematography (by César Charlone) is immersive as it feels like a documentary crew going through the Vatican.

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce work so well together and their chemistry is phenomenal, and they create such an interesting story just through their dialogue as they discuss various topics, especially when Borgoglio seeks permission to retire but Benedict won’t let him because he knows he’s his true successor.

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Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes. (IMDb)

They have some great comedic moments in this film, as well, especially when they dance the tango. That’s what their acting feels like – a pair dancing a compelling tango. My only complaint is slow pacing and if anyone isn’t interested in what the characters are talking about, it could get boring. Hopkins and Pryce maintained my interest, though and it’s more entertaining than I thought it would be.

I think this is the poster boy of a good film that would be forgotten in a very strong year for films. There’s a scene in the credits that I don’t consider a spoiler, as Benedict and Francis bond over the 2014 World Cup between Benedict’s home country of Germany and Francis’ home country of Argentina.

This is the funniest scene of the film for me and it shows how funny them just talking and bonding is, and how sharp the dialogue is. That’s also on the great chemistry between the two. Truthfully, The Two Popes is a strong film, but if the whole movie were just the two Popes commentating the 2014 World Cup, that would be a masterpiece.

Score: 75/100

Togo (2019)

Togo (2019)

Directed by: Ericson Core. Starring: Willem Dafoe, Julianne Nicholson, Christopher Heyerdahl. Runtime: 1h 53 min. Released: December 20, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

The story of the sled dog, Togo, who led the 1925 serum run in Nome, Alaska, but was considered by most to be too small and weak to ever lead a dog race. Togo is a true underdog story as even his owner, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), never thought he would amount to much. We see through flashbacks Togo being a hyperactive pup and smartly getting out of his pen to go race beside Seppala’s sled dogs.

These scenes are charming as we see how Togo becomes Seppala’s most trusted dog. Dafoe is stellar as Seppala as he leads a noble expedition to get the serum from Nenana, about 675 miles away, as the weather is too harsh for the serum to be flown to Nome. The stakes are high because of the diphtheria outbreak in Nome, and this expedition is to save the lives of the town’s children. Seppala leads the dogs but Togo is the lead interest in the film as an aging dog that looks to be on his final legs.

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Willem Dafoe in Togo. (IMDb)

Seppala knows the risks of using Togo as his lead dog because of his age, but he knows that if he doesn’t bring Togo, they’d never make it. The story about a man and his dog is excellent here and the chemistry is great. The drama here is excellent, too, especially with a charming Julianne Nicholson as Constance Seppala who is the only one who really fights for Togo when he’s a pup.

The action here is also breathtaking and so is the cinematography by Ericson Core, who also directs. The action’s at its most incredible when they race across the Norton Sound, ice breaking and all, and the way back is even more intense. The film has all the inspiration of a sports movie, and brief sports scenes of an actual dog race, the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, shines. I’d just love to see a live-action dog racing film that has a similar look and tone, because a feature-length story of a dog race would be great. I’ve only ever really seen a dog race in Snow Dogs in film, but that’s just a goofy comedy.

I think this is an excellent untold story of Togo as he and Seppala traveled the longest out of any of the relay teams of 260 miles through beyond freezing conditions. Togo’s the star of the 1925 serum run, and the film’s not trying to take away any of the fame of the most-known dog of this race, Balto, it’s just sharing the lesser known tale of Togo.

Score: 80/100

The Perfection (2019)

The Perfection (2019)

Directed by: Richard Shepard. Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: May 24, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences. Y’know, I absolutely love movies with a twist.

But with The Perfection, there are about four or five twists sprinkled throughout the film. These are not small twists, either; they are twists that subvert expectations at every turn. I could barely figure out what film it’s trying to be, and when I thought I had figured it out, director Richard Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder say “Psych!” and change the direction of the film. The changes feel organic to the story, however, and they are rarely frustrating.

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Allison Williams in The Perfection. (IMDb)

That’s what makes The Perfection one of the most unique horror films I’ve seen in awhile as it blends romance, a stalker movie, a virus film, as well as another genre which would border on spoiler. I’ll just say that some characters get their comeuppance and that aspect doesn’t work as well as the others. The third act twists are intriguing, but one aspect is a disturbing pillow to swallow. It’s the only direction of the film I don’t completely love as it becomes slightly too dark for even my tastes, and I think if it was handled in a different this would be in my Top 10 of 2019. (For reference point, this would probably still make my Top 30 out of 200 films.)

Allison Williams and Logan Brown are both great here. Williams plays so many layers convincingly that I swear after this and Get Out, I could never trust her. Steven Weber also turns in a memorable performance as the music teacher who thrives on perfection. It’s a film that is separated into distinct chapters and tones and they are balanced well. The Perfection is a wild, wild ride and it takes so many risks, even if they don’t all pay off. It also never feels like a gimmick where it’s only about its twists, because it gives thought to its characters. It has backbone and for a film that could be very standard, it takes an utterly crazy path, the road less traveled. It’s audacious to its last shot. Truly, the last note I wrote for this film in my notebook was: “Honestly, what the fuck?”

Score: 75/100

Scooby-Doo: Return to Zombie Island (2019)

Scooby-Doo: Return to Zombie Island (2019)

Directed by: Cecilia Aranovich, Ethan Spaulding. Starring: Frank Welker, Grey Griffin, Matthew Lillard. Runtime: 1h 20 min. Released: September 3, 2019 (video).

Some spoilers follow.

I’m sitting here eating some of those Betty Crocker’s fruit flavored Scooby Snacks (not a sponsor). I’m 25 yet still have the snack preferences of an elementary school child, but that’s beside the point. I decided it would be an appropriate time to review Scooby-Doo: Return to Zombie Island. A direct sequel to the 1998 film Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, this has the Mystery Gang coming out of retirement to investigate a mystery on the familiar zombie-infested island.

That’s my first problem with the film, the fact that they’ve “retired.” It opens with a montage of our gang chasing a bunch of villains as if in a last hurrah and then it’s revealed Fred has sold the Mystery Machine (for some reason). I haven’t been following the current television shows for Scooby-Doo so I don’t know if it’s canon that Mystery Inc. has closed up shop, but in this film, it comes out of nowhere with zero explanation. Scooby (Frank Welker) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) make Fred (also Welker), Daphne (Grey Griffin) and Velma (Kate Micucci) promise not to solve any mysteries for the foreseeable future because they’ve like, had it, man! Enough of that spooky stuff, they just want to watch horror movies where the monsters are fake.

When they win a trip to Zombie Island from an Elvira marathon show, we realize that most of the group don’t know how to live without sleuthing. Shaggy and Scooby will always have their food (and by the way, all the food in this film still looks delicious), but Velma only has her sleuthing. It’s also annoying when Shaggy and Scooby are attacked by zombies and they all think there’s a rational explanation for it because they can’t investigate the mystery. It’s convoluted and irritating, but the film becomes okay when Shaggy and Scooby release them from their promise and let them investigate the strange happenings and why they were invited to the island.

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Zombies in Scooby-Doo: Return to Zombie Island. (IMDb)

Then, we realize why they had the whole convoluted thing about them not being able to investigate the mystery – because there’s not enough story in this film and there’s not much of a mystery. They literally have to kill about 35 minutes here so they can get it to feature length. If they were allowed to investigate from the get go, Velma would have solved this “unsolved mystery” (as she calls it on her blog) in about 10 minutes.

A note about the voice cast: I like the cast and how it’s adapted over the years, like now that Frank Welker is voicing Scooby as well as Fred. Matthew Lillard voicing Shaggy in animated projects since 2010 is a stroke of brilliance because he really embodied Shaggy in the live-action films (Scooby-Doo and Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed). Of course, I also like Grey Griffin as Daphne, as she’s voiced her in feature films since my personal favourite Scooby film, Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase. My only complaint is Kate Micucci. I like her as an actress, and though she’s voiced the character since 2015, I’m still getting used to her. Her voice fits the character, but her voice is just so distinct I still hear too much Micucci and not just Velma.

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Matthew Lillard and Frank Welker as Shaggy and Scooby in Scooby-Doo: Return to Zombie Island. (IMDb)

Anyway, Return to Zombie Island still does have a couple clever moments. The classic Scooby chase scene where they go from room to room will always be funny. The film’s also clever in a character name that would be a spoiler, but that is with Alan, played by John Michael Higgins (and this casting is solid). I think the best joke is when Fred is recapping the first film and Shaggy is just shouting, “We know, man, we were there!” It’s helpful exposition for those who might forget the first film, and it’s a good meta joke, but even recapping it so blandly takes away some of the joy of the first film.

The original is one of my favourite Scooby movies and I love these movies, and this one is just rough to watch and feels lifeless. By the end of it I didn’t care to hear anyone call our gang meddling kids because the story isn’t interesting. Its biggest problem is just breaking that sacred formula of investigating a mystery and getting called meddling kids, as the random introduction of them retiring just takes away my enjoyment. The formula’s still there, it’s just buried under a lot of Scooby Snacks.

Score: 40/100