The Movie Snob goes back to the beginning. The real beginning….
Star Wars (A-). I recently re-watched this old classic, probably for the first time since I started this blog. Of course it’s awesome. I still wonder how our little band of heroes was able to navigate the anonymous halls and corridors of the Death Star so easily on their very first visit, but never mind. I also ding the filmmakers for not trimming the film a tiny bit to make it a G-rated movie. There are a few mild but unnecessary expletives, and a couple of scenes that are unnecessarily gruesome. (The scene of Luke Skywalker’s home after the storm troopers have murdered his aunt and uncle; the bloody severed arm in the Cantina scene.) But who knows; maybe the filmmakers reasonably feared a G rating would hurt box office. In recent years I managed to get my picture taken with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Corvette Summer) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, When Harry Met Sally) at comic-book conventions. I doubt I’ll ever score the trifecta by getting Han Solo (Harrison Ford, American Graffiti), though.
Merry & Bright (B-). It’s still the Christmas season according to some calendars, so let’s keep enjoying Hallmark holiday movies as long as we can! This light confection from 2019 stars Full House‘s Jodi Sweetin as Kate, a single lady in small-town Ohio who recently took over her late grandmother’s struggling candy-cane company. As Christmas approaches, a corporate consultant from NYC named Gabe (Andrew W. Walker, A Dream of Christmas) shows up and starts tossing off advice for improving the company’s bottom line. (I wasn’t clear on exactly who hired him, since Kate is plainly none too thrilled to have him around.) Things unspool nicely and predictably, but the movie is woefully short of musical montages. Still, it features veteran TV actress Sharon Lawrence (TV’s NYPD Blue) as Kate’s mom, a small-town Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony, and a cute dog, so it hits many other high notes.
Arthur Christmas (B). I just saw this 2011 animated film for the first time. It’s a wild, frantic movie, and I was somewhat distracted while watching, so I feel like I missed about a third of what was happening. Here’s what I picked up: Santa Claus (voice of Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge!) is real, and he comes from a long line of Santa Clauses going back to St. Nicholas. Nowadays he and his elves use a super high-tech spaceship to deliver toys all over the world on Christmas Eve night. But the current Santa is getting on in years, and his super-capable older son is chafing to take over the big red suit. Meanwhile, Santa’s inept younger son Arthur (voice of James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) works in the mailroom, and Santa’s retired father hangs around cackling absurdities. When it is discovered very early Christmas morning that one little girl’s bicycle went undelivered, Santa and the older son decide it just can’t be fixed. But Arthur refuses to give up, and when Grandpa Claus (voice of Bill Nighy, Shaun of the Dead) hitches the reindeer up to his old sleigh, Arthur and a stowaway elf named Bryony (voice of Ashley Jensen, The Lobster) are in for the ride of their lives. Although I missed a lot, I still laughed a bunch, especially at Grandpa Claus’s wacky comments.
Switched for Christmas (B). Candace Cameron Bure (TV’s Full House) stars in this delightful 2017 Hallmark Christmas movie. Bure plays identical twin sisters, Kate and Chris, who couldn’t be more different. Kate is a successful corporate type in Denver with no husband or kids, while Chris is a divorced mother of two who teaches art in a nearby small town called Littleton. They are somewhat estranged, but then they decide to switch places (like they used to when they were kids) because Kate doesn’t want to plan her office Christmas party and Chris doesn’t want to plan the Littleton Christmas festival thingie. Does each sister excel at living the other’s life and then find romance under false pretenses? Do bears like honey? Not very plausible, but perfectly enjoyable!
A Dream of Christmas (B+). This 2016 Hallmark Christmas movie hits all the right notes. Our cute heroine is Penny, an advertising copywriter who keeps getting passed over for a promotion. (Actress Nikki Deloach, The House Bunny, looks like a young Erin Gray, which doesn’t hurt.) She’s also vaguely unhappy with her husband, a traveling nature photographer who looks like a knock-off Eric Bana. So when she wishes out loud that she hadn’t gotten married, an angel (?) hears her and grants her wish. Suddenly she’s a senior VP at her ad agency, drives a cherry-red sports car, and is blissfully unmarried, having never met the man she was married to in her previous life. (In a nice twist, her previously married-with-kids sister is also now single—because Penny and her husband introduced the sister to her husband.) Three guesses whether Penny turns out to be happier in her new life. To complete the package, the movie delivers both a musical montage and a faded star in a supporting role—Cindy Williams from TV’s Laverne & Shirley as the Christmas angel! Set your DVR, folks!
Christmas in Rome (B). Tis the season for Hallmark Christmas movies, and because this 2019 release stars Hallmark veteran Lacey Chabert (Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe) you know you’re in for a treat. Chabert plays Angela, an American who works as a tour guide in Rome. She’s passionately in love with the city, but unfortunately that doesn’t keep her from getting fired right before Christmas. But fortunately, while walking across the scenic Ponte Sant’Angelo, she runs into a theoretically handsome American guy who’s in town to try to buy up a venerable Italian ceramics company for his big New York firm. He quickly hires her to help him connect with the company’s crusty old owner Luigi, who doesn’t appreciate Yankee directness, and he in turn may be able to help her attract investors to start her own tour company. The show is missing a musical montage, but on the plus side it’s got lots of pretty Roman scenery and has a plot that involves almost no conflict or other unpleasantness. Pure holiday gold, I say!
Home Alone (C). I missed this allegedly beloved film when it was in theaters and eventually began to pride myself on being one of the few living human beings who has never seen it. That’s what a good movie snob would do, right? But The Borg Queen finally cornered me into watching it, and to my chagrin I actually laughed a few times. Not that it’s a good movie, mind you; it’s quite mediocre. Macaulay Culkin (My Girl) plays a little boy (around 8 maybe?) who accidentally gets left home alone when his large family takes a Christmas trip to Paris. (The film’s explanation for how this could happen is actually pretty reasonable.) While awaiting their return, young Culkin lives it up, squares off against a pair of bumbling burglars (Joe Pesci, My Cousin Vinny; Daniel Stern, Whip It), and supposedly learns the importance of family. The sentimentality feels tacked-on, and there’s some crude language that was totally inappropriate in what I guess is supposed to be a family-oriented movie. Still, it made me laugh a few times, and that’s better than I was expecting.
Cinderella (B). I may have seen this animated classic as a child, but I really don’t think I did. Seeing it for the first time as an adult, I thought it was a charming entertainment. The story is really stripped to the essentials: A few sentences of voice-over narration and boom, we are in the middle of Cinderella’s story, not long before the Royal Ball. (The film is only 74 minutes, which is nice.) There are really just a few scenes: an intro in which the friendly mice elude the wicked cat (Lucifer!), the making and unmaking of Cinderella’s dress, the fairy godmother, the ball, and the denouement. Oh, and a couple of scenes in which the king blusters about how hard it is to get his son the prince to marry and settle down. (The Prince himself is barely in the movie.) And there’s a little bit of a surprising twist at the end that I don’t recall ever hearing in any other version of the story. (SPOILER: When the royal servants show up at Cinderella’s house to let the girls try on the glass slipper, the wicked stepmother causes it to be broken before Cinderella can try it on—but Cinderella still has the other one, and the servants accept that as adequate proof of her identity.) Enjoyable for all ages.
Voyager: Season 5. This season achieved a 2.5 grade-point average, which is slightly lower than the 2.58 grade I gave season four. However, season five was the first in which I gave any episode a grade of “A,” and I actually handed it out to three different episodes: “Drone,” “Course: Oblivion,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Not surprisingly, Seven of Nine figures prominently in two of those three excellent episodes. In “Drone,” she becomes a maternal figure to another Borg drone who develops an individual personality, and in “Someone to Watch Over Me,” she takes the Doctor’s advice and experiments with dating. “Course: Oblivion” is an affecting episode in which we find out that the aliens from season four episode “Demon” have somehow built their own duplicate starship Voyager and now believe that they are the real Voyager crew. Otherwise, I handed out nine B’s, thirteen C’s, and one F for the bizarre episode “The Fight.” Stay away from that one, but definitely check out the A-listers and the many killer B’s: “In the Flesh,” “Infinite Regress,” “Counterpoint,” “Bride of Chaotica!,” “Gravity,” “Bliss,” “Dark Frontier Part I” (Part II got only a C), “Warhead,” and season ender “Equinox Part I.”
Pinocchio (C). I finally saw this Disney classic from 1940, and I would describe it as both bizarre and intense. I knew the general outline of the story: the Blue Fairy blesses humble woodcarver Geppetto by bringing the puppet Pinocchio to life, and Pinocchio (with his sidekick/conscience Jiminy Cricket) gets into some misadventures before the Blue Fairy finishes the job by making him into a real flesh-and-blood boy. But I wasn’t prepared for just how strange and even nightmarish these misadventures are. I won’t commit any spoilers just in case you haven’t seen it, but there’s some strange stuff in here. I’d say it might be too scary for the smallest and most sensitive kids, so parents should give it a watch first.
The Gifted School, by Bruce Holsinger (2019). In the beautiful, liberal enclave of Crystal, Colorado, four women have become best friends, in part because each has a child (or twins) in fifth grade. But their friendship is shaken to the core when it is announced that a new charter school for gifted children is coming to Crystal. Crystal Academy will be super-selective, and there are no guarantees that these mommies’ darlings will make the cut. Is there anything the mommies won’t do to give their precious snowflakes a leg up on the competition? The writing is good, with lots of telling details about the characters and the setting. But I thought some of the chicanery was a little over the top, and the ending wasn’t great. Still and all, I enjoyed the book.
The Boss Baby (B). I was not really looking forward to watching this one, but I must admit it surprised me. I think I was assuming it would be some sort of goofy Look Who’s Talking kind of affair, with dumb humor about what babies would think and say if they could think and talk like grown-ups. It’s a far stranger, almost psychedelic concoction. The story is told from the perspective of seven-year-old Tim, whose world is rocked when his parents foist a baby brother on him. Things get weird quick. The baby wears a suit and has a briefcase, and Tim soon discovers that he talks like an adult (with the voice of Alec Baldwin, It’s Complicated) when he thinks no one else is around. After some initial antagonism, Tim and Boss Baby join forces to accomplish the Baby’s mission, which is also completely bonkers. What on earth is going on? Is the whole story just a product of Tim’s overactive imagination? Why is the voice-over narration, supposedly by Tim, supplied by a different voice (Tobey Maguire’s, in fact)? The ending satisfyingly answers these questions.
Voyager: Season Four. This show continues to improve, in my estimation. Using letter grades, I gave this season’s 26 episodes 16 Bs, 9 Cs, and only a single D, for a 2.58 grade-point average. A large part of the reason for the season’s high marks has to be the appearance of a new crew member—a svelte former Borg drone known as Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, Down with Love). Her long years as a Borg have left her super-smart and super-unemotional, and her struggle to get in touch with her long-suppressed humanity becomes a running motif. (Her joining Voyager also means the end for Kes, a character I kind of liked. Kes bows out in the second episode.) The crew continues to find the Delta Quadrant a dangerous and even savage place, repeatedly crossing paths mid-season with an extremely belligerent and cruel race called the Hirogen. And around that same time, the crew manages to communicate with Starfleet, though only briefly and incompletely, which is kind of exciting and generates some repercussions in future episodes. The only episode you must avoid is number 21, about some weird molecule called Omega, which Star Fleet has a top secret directive to all starship captains to destroy. There are lots of good episodes, but I’ll single out episode 14, in which the Doctor gets to interact with another snippy emergency medical hologram played by Andy Dick (TV’s NewsRadio), and episode 23, an unusual episode set 700 years after Voyager’s unfortunate detour to the Delta Quadrant.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (C). This was my first time to see this 1989 “classic,” so my grade is a little generous to factor in the era in which it was made and the fact that a geezer in his 50s is not the target audience. That said, it’s really not very good. Rick Moranis (Little Shop of Horrors) plays an absent-minded scientist type who’s also a suburban father of two. He’s trying to invent a shrinking machine, which he unwisely keeps in his house’s attic. Through a mishap, his kids and the two boys who live next door get shrunk down to a size smaller than an ant. When the tiny kids accidentally get thrown out with the garbage, they have to cross the now-immense back yard to return to the house and then somehow draw their parents’ attention to their plight. The kids’ adventure part of the story is okay, but throughout the movie the humor is generally terrible. Extra demerits for the next-door dad character (Matt Frewer, Dawn of the Dead (2004)), a stereotypical boor who hounds his sensitive older son to be a football player and is otherwise generally unpleasant. The lovely Marcia Strassman (TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter) plays Moranis’s wife. I didn’t recognize any of the child actors, but The Borg Queen informed me that Jared Rushton was in Big.
Monsters University (C). I only dimly remember the 2001 animated film Monsters, Inc., and I think I liked it OK. Twelve years later, Pixar came out with this prequel, which I just saw. The little green one-eyed monster Mike (voice of Billy Crystal, The Princess Bride) has the ambition to be a “scarer” when he grows up, and he gets into Scare School at Monsters University. There he quickly gets crossways with another freshman, a big, blue, natural-born scarer called Sully (voice of John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane). And then it gets very predictable: opposites Mike and Sully are both kicked out of the program. Desperate to get back in, they team up, join the lamest fraternity on campus, and try to carry their fraternity to an underdog victory in the Scare Games in hopes of being let back into Scare School. Lots of vocal talent, including Steve Buscemi (Fargo), Nathan Fillion (Serenity), and the formidable Helen Mirren (The Queen) as the crusty old Dean Hardscrabble, can’t lift this overly long (104 minutes) movie above mediocrity.
A Republic, If You Can Keep It, by Justice Neil Gorsuch with Jane Nitze and David Feder (2019). I wasn’t really planning to buy this book, but then I paid my first visit to Interabang Books, an independent bookstore (!) in Dallas, and I saw that it had signed copies for sale. Just a few weeks later, the store got wiped out in those crazy tornadoes! (I guess that all happened about a year ago? More?) Anyhoo, this book is a collection of speeches, essays, and judicial opinions by the man who replaced Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court. He promises to out-Scalia his predecessor, writing with conviction about the importance of the separation of powers and textualism in statutory and constitutional interpretation. I enjoyed the book, but I was already sold on most of the ideas he’s selling; your mileage may vary. And I didn’t see anything in the book explaining who Jane Nitze and David Feder are or what they did on this book, which I was a little curious about.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (C). I think this was the first time I had ever seen this old Disney classic, and I doubt I will ever revisit it. You probably already know the story. A nice London couple has a pair of dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, and they have a litter of 15 pups. The wicked Cruella De Vil wants a dalmatian fur coat, so she hires two dim-witted thugs to steal the pups and stash them in Cruella’s crumbling country mansion—along with 84 other dalmatian pups she apparently got from pet stores. Pongo and Perdita have to rescue the puppies, with some timely assists from other animal friends. Even though it’s only 79 minutes long, it felt padded out, and the whole enterprise was only middlingly entertaining. I note that the movie is based on a novel by Dodie Smith, who also wrote the novel that I Capture the Castle was based on. That 2003 movie is well worth checking out.
Smallfoot (C). This animated feature has some things going for it. It’s a reverse-perspective story about a community of yetis who live high in the Himalayas and view humans (“smallfeet”) as legends. Then, one day, an ordinary yeti named Migo (voice of Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street) actually encounters a human (a crashed airplane pilot), leading him to begin questioning the village’s quasi-religious origin story and other odd traditions. In a nice touch, the “villains” are not thoroughly villainous. For example, there’s a (human) nature-TV star who’s losing his integrity because old-fashioned shows like his can’t compete with modern reality TV, and the pope-like yeti village leader actually has a reasonable motive for preserving the yetis’ ignorance of the real world. And yet . . . the execution is off, somehow. Few of the jokes really landed, and I didn’t think the handful of songs were very good. In sum, a pretty bland experience.
Spies in Disguise (B+). This Christmas 2019 animated feature totally slipped under my radar, but I saw it on “streaming” or something last weekend, and I was astonished at how funny it was. Will Smith (Hitch) voices Lance Sterling, an ace secret agent in the mold of James Bond turned up to 11. Tom Holland (Captain America: Civil War) voices Walter, a young nerd in the spy gadgets section of Lance’s agency. After Lance gets framed for stealing some top-secret something-or-other, he turns to Walter for help—and accidentally gets turned into a pigeon. (The movie was apparently inspired by a short called “Pigeon: Impossible.”) So Walter and pigeon Lance go chasing after the bad guy, while the agency is chasing them. I laughed out loud several times at the many James Bondian references and other random funny stuff (like a girl pigeon who falls in love with pigeon Lance and helps take out bad guys while actually intending to target the agency gal who’s leading the hunt for Lance).
Voyager: Season Three. Season Three serves up another 26 episodes of the trials and travails of the starship Voyager on its 70-year journey back to the Alpha Quadrant. I think the show’s batting average was a little higher this season than last; for season three, I dished out 10 B’s, 14 C’s, 1 D, and 1 F for a grade-point average of 2.27. The F goes to episode 7, “Sacred Ground,” which is, in my view, a poor handling of religion and faith that is unfortunately characteristic of Voyager and maybe all of Star Trek. The D grade goes to episode 20, “Favorite Son,” in which a planet of alien vampire women set their sights on Ensign Kim (Garrett Wang, Survival Island), of all people. But there are plenty of good episodes, such as episode 11, in which Q returns for some more hijinks, episode 17, in which Chakotay (Robert Beltran, Bugsy) finds a planet full of emancipated Borg drones, some of whom are trying to build a new, peaceful society, and the cliffhanger season-ender in which the Borg itself makes its first real appearance. I’m looking forward to season 4.
Descendants 3 (B). After a saggy and disappointing middle installment, the trilogy ends on a high note. King Ben’s plan to let more “villains’ kids” leave the Isle of the Lost gets scuttled after Hades (Cheyenne Jackson, TV’s American Horror Story) nearly escapes from the Isle. Meanwhile, envy gets the best of Sleeping Beauty’s daughter Audrey (Sarah Jeffery, Be Somebody) after Ben proposes to Mal, and she steals Maleficent’s staff from the museum (surely the worst guarded repository of dangerous artifacts in the world) so that she can conquer the world. The original VKs have to team up with Uma and her crew to foil Audrey’s wicked schemes. This installment features some of the best songs in the series, especially the father–daughter duet “Do What You Gotta Do” by Hades and Mal (Dove Cameron, Descendants).
Descendants 2. (D) This sequel kicks off with a very catchy opening musical number in which the Villains’ Kids seem to return to their wicked ways by brewing up a bunch of magical apples that turn all of Auradon Prep’s goody-goodies bad. But that’s just a daydream, and the rest of this sequel is decidedly unmagical. Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron, Descendants) seems to have it all, but she is plagued with self-doubt and eventually decides to chuck life at Auradon Prep and return to the Isle of the Lost. There we meet our main antagonist Uma (China Anne McClain, Grown Ups), daughter of sea witch Ursula. Uma captures King Ben (Mitchell Hope, Let It Snow) and demands Fairy Godmother’s magic wand for his release. After a big swordfight in which the VKs rescue King Ben from Uma’s pirate ship, the movie drones on and on but nothing else really happens. I hear the third Descendants movie is better, and I know it has some catchy songs, so fingers crossed….
Descendants (B). This 2015 Disney TV movie captured my four-year-old goddaughter’s heart–or at least the musical numbers did. In this fairly clever tale, the princesses and other good characters from all the Disney movies have come together to make a lovely country called Auradon. All the Disney villains have been banished to The Isle of the Lost, just off Auradon’s coast and sealed with a magical force field. Through some strange system of governance, Ben, the teenaged son of King Beast and Queen Belle, is about to become king, and he decrees that four of the villains’ children will be allowed to leave the Isle and go to school with the good people’s kids at Auradon Prep. Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth, Bewitched) instructs her daughter, Mal (Dove Cameron, TV’s Liv and Maddie), to get the Fairy Godmother’s wand and use it to release the villains from the Isle. But will the handsome and kind Ben turn Mal aside from her wicked scheme?
Onward (B). I don’t know if you have be a Dungeons & Dragons player to appreciate this recent Pixar offering, but it certainly can’t hurt. In the world of Onward, magic is real, as are lots of mythical creatures like unicorns, elves (who look more like trolls than like Legolas), centaurs, and manticores. But the creatures have given up magic in favor of technology, which is much more reliable, and now they live in a modern suburban society just like ours. Nevertheless, through a series of unlikely events, two very dissimilar elvish brothers, Ian (voice of Tom Holland, How I Live Now) and Barley (voice of Chris Pratt, Passengers), embark on a quest to find a magical jewel that will allow them to reincarnate their long-deceased father for one day. Will they succeed? Will their quest bring them closer together or tear them apart forever? The story is decent, but I mostly enjoyed the D&D tropes. The brothers’ encounter with a gelatinous cube deep in the bowels of a trap-filled dungeon is a highlight. (And if you don’t know what a gelatinous cube is, google it and click on “Images”!)
Frozen II (C). I must say that this sequel to the Disney juggernaut Frozen left me cold <rimshot>. Maybe it’s because the first film really wasn’t set up for a sequel, but this one felt tacked on and arbitrary. Despite the previous film’s happy ending and Arendell’s apparent prosperity under Queen Elsa’s benevolent rule, the Queen is restless and unhappy, imagining that she hears a siren song calling her north. It turns out the royal family has a complicated backstory—as a boy, the girls’ father, King Agnarr, accompanied a mission to an enchanted forest in the north, and for some unknown reason hostilities broke out between the Arendellians and the locals. Agnarr was the only Arendellian to escape before a wall of mist (reinforced with a magical force field) sealed the forest off from the world. Now Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf (somewhat more amusing in this film) must somehow penetrate the mist (which they easily do by the simple expedient of having Elsa go first) and find out what’s going on inside. There’s a lot of running hither and yon, and lots of magical “explanations” that made no sense to me. Plenty of songs, most of which are OK.