Adam Driver, festive royal families, and dogs: here’s a series of mini reviews of movies released on streaming services in December.
THE REPORT (AMAZON)
Okay, technically “The Report” was a November release, but it came in at the end of the month so I’m going to let it slide. Scott Z. Burns’ film, which I wrote a full review of that you can read here, follows Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones (played by Adam Driver) on his five year investigation of the CIA’s post 9/11 detention and interrogation plan. It’s a dialogue-heavy movie that presents mostly cold hard facts, but it’s pretty compelling thanks to passionate performances from Driver and Annette Bening (who plays Senator Dianne Feinstein) and a story that feels incredibly relevant. Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated R. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
A CHRISTMAS PRINCE: THE ROYAL BABY (NETFLIX)
Directed by John Schultz, this is the third installment in Netflix’s popular series of purposely cheesy movies, with Ben Lamb and Rose McIver returning to play King Richard and Queen Amber of the fictional kingdom of Aldovia. This movie sees NYC native Amber finally settled into royal life and pregnant with her first child, due soon after Christmas. At the same time, this is the year that Aldovia must renew a centuries-old treaty with their ally, the neighboring kingdom of Penglia, but when the treaty suddenly goes missing right before it can be signed—and during a snowstorm that keeps everyone locked in the castle—former investigative reporter Amber only has until midnight Christmas Eve to find it. Otherwise, Penglia and Aldovia will technically be at war, a curse will befall her unborn baby, and a lot of other vaguely terrible things will happen. It’s all extremely ridiculous, from ghosts to dungeons to fancy baby showers, gets way too caught up in made-up Aldovia’s made-up history, and Amber continues to prove herself the worst investigator ever, but it’s all in good fun. It’s hard to imagine where the series can possibly go from here, since they’ve already mined every rom-com trope known to man. But hey, at least the holiday decorations in the palace are pretty. Runtime: 85 minutes. 2 out of 5 stars.
MARRIAGE STORY (NETFLIX)
I wrote a full review of “Marriage Story,” which you can read here. This drama written and directed by Noah Baumbach takes the viewer through the end of a marriage. Theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) deal with their impending divorce in different ways as they adjust to the change in their lives and fight for custody of their young son. The script is equal parts funny and heart-breaking, and both Driver and Johansson deliver powerhouse performances that are among the best of the year, and the best of their careers. Runtime: 136 minutes. Rated R. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
THE TWO POPES (NETFLIX)
You can read my full review of “The Two Popes” here. This drama, directed by Fernando Meirelles with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten adapted from his play, zeroes in on the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the future Pope Francis. Over a couple of days, the two men argue and bond over their personal and spiritual beliefs. “The Two Popes” is equal parts moving and humorous, with Hopkins and Pryce delivering performances that are so good they seem effortless. Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
THE AERONAUTS (AMAZON)
Directed by Tom Harper, this rousing Victorian adventure reteams Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne. Jones is Amelia Rennes, a pilot haunted by the death of her husband, and Redmayne is James Glaiser, a scientist who is laughed at by his peers for his belief that weather can be predicted. Both having something to prove, Amelia and James team up for a hot air balloon flight that makes new strides in meteorology, as well as takes them to a higher altitude than any humans had been at before—but the journey is a dangerous one. “The Aeronauts” is partially based on a true story; James was a real person, but Amelia was made up for the film, presumably to give it a more feminist angle. While that feels contrived at times, it’s easy to see how her plucky and brave character is inspiring, particularly for any young girls watching the film. Jones and Redmayne continue to have good chemistry together, although their scenes in the balloon are much more interesting than the flashbacks that tell the story of how they got there. The effects and cinematography are beautiful, and the long shots of the balloon floating through the sky have an almost painterly quality that suits the setting well. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3 out of 5 stars.
TOGO (DISNEY PLUS)
Most of us know the story of Balto (I grew up with the animated film version of his story). But less recognizable is Togo, the lead sled dog on part of that same 1925 serum run in Alaska. Racing against time and in a deadly blizzard, most of the sled teams traveled around 30 miles; Togo and his team, led by musher Leonhard Seppala, traveled 264 miles. This film directed by Ericson Core tells that side of the story. It’s nicely structured, with flashbacks occurring during the serum run that detail the development of the relationship between Leonhard (played by Willem Dafoe) and Togo. Initially the runt of the litter, Leonard wants to get rid of Togo, but is convinced not to by his wife, Constance (Julianne Nicholson). He eventually realizes that Togo has the drive and energy to outrun all the other dogs, and grows fond of him over time; but at the time of the serum run, Togo is 12 years old, and it is believed that if Leonhard lets him continue to lead the team, he won’t survive the trip. Dafoe and Nicholson are both compelling, and the film depicts their relationship with their dog in a way that is sincere and emotional with being overly manipulative or sentimental. It’s a sweet and inspiring family movie that is perfect for the Disney streaming service. Runtime: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13. 4 out of 5 stars.