Here’s part one of my mini reviews for movies that were new to streaming in November- and as you will see, holiday movie season is already in full swing! Keep scrolling for reviews of “Holidate,” “Operation Christmas Drop,” “The Life Ahead,” “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” “Run,” “Mangrove,” and “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.”
“Holidate” is less a Christmas movie and more an all-holidays kind of movie, although the action—which takes place over the course of one year—does begin and end on Christmas. Directed by John Whitesell, the film follows Sloane (Emma Roberts) and Jackson (Luke Bracey). Both tired of having to spend the holidays alone while they aren’t in a serious relationship, Sloane and Jackson decide after a chance encounter at the mall to become each other’s holidates, a term coined by Sloane’s Aunt Susan (Kristin Chenoweth), who brings a different date to every holiday gathering. The film proceeds to hit all the major holidays from New Year’s to Halloween, and even minor ones like Cinco de Mayo. Sloane and Jackson enjoy each other’s company from the start but decide to keep things platonic, although they struggle to continue to do so the more time they spend together. “Holidate” has a raunchy sense of humor, and although there are some laughs to be found in some of the situations stemming from these holiday gatherings (the Fourth of July one is particularly wacky), a lot of it falls flat as neither lead is particularly likeable or charming. “Holidate” also falls into the trap of trying to get laughs by humiliating the female lead, but not putting its male lead into comparable situations. And while it tries to be self-aware about the usual rom-com tropes, it ultimately falls into many of them without a wink or a nod. “Holidate” does boast a colorful supporting cast, including the aforementioned Chenoweth, Frances Fisher, Jessica Capshaw, Andrew Bachelor, Alex Moffat, and Manish Dayal. Runtime: 104 minutes. Rated TV-MA.
“OPERATION CHRISTMAS DROP” (Netflix)
A lot of the charm of “Operation Christmas Drop” comes from the fact that it is based on a real-life Air Force humanitarian operation that has occurred annually since 1952. Operation Christmas Drop airlifts supplies and gifts to people on more than 50 remote islands in the Pacific. The operation’s base camp is on Guam, which is where this movie was filmed—the first major movie to ever be shot in Guam—so everything you see on the base in the film is legit. More fabricated is the romance that propels the story forward, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. Directed by Martin Wood, the film follows Erica (Kat Graham), a Washington, D.C.-based aide to Congresswoman Bradford (Virginia Madsen). Bradford is looking for where the government can cut costs, so she sends Erica to Guam to investigate Operation Christmas Drop, believing she will be able to observe where money is being unnecessarily spent and recommend the base for closure. But not only does Erica discover that Operation Christmas Drop occurs at virtually no cost to the government, she finds herself falling for Air Force Captain Andrew Jantz (Alexander Ludwig) as he shows her around the island. “Operation Christmas Drop” is similar in tone and style to a made-for-cable-TV holiday movie: we know exactly how it is going to end as soon as it begins. But its leads are charming, the tropical paradise setting is a welcome change from the usual snowy small towns, and the real-life influence on the story is heart-warming, even if the thread about a once-idealistic politician realizing what is really important is a bit eye-roll-inducing. We just won’t talk about the ridiculous CGI gecko inhabiting Erica’s quarters. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated TV-G.
“THE LIFE AHEAD” (Netflix)
Icon Sophia Loren returns to the screen for the first time in 10 years in a film directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. Loren plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who cares for the children of other working women. She is reluctantly convinced to take in a rebellious Senegalese orphan called Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) after he is caught stealing from her. As they learn more about each other, the two form a strong bond, and Ponti beautifully shows this relationship developing from their shared pain. The Italian drama may be somewhat formulaic, but it avoids ever getting overly sentimental, and is elevated by the performances of Loren and Gueye (an electric new face who deserves all the praise for his performance) and a diverse cast that includes Rosa’s transgender friend Lola (Abril Zamora). I hope that this is not the 86-year-old Loren’s final film role, but if it is, what a way to go out. “The Life Ahead” showcases the best of all her talents as she embodies a character who is tough but caring, and still traumatized by her past, which Ponti shows us without needing to explain. It’s a joy to see her on screen again regardless, but the fact that “The Life Ahead” is so lovely and comforting to boot makes it so much sweeter. Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY” (Netflix)
Few new holiday movies possess that timeless feeling that the classics that have us returning to them year after year do, but “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” comes very close to replicating that feeling. The family musical written and directed by David E. Talbert tells the story of inventor and toymaker Jeronicus Jangle, owner of the colorful store Jangles and Things. As a young man (played by Justin Cornwell), he finishes an invention he believes will change the lives of his family and of families everywhere: a sentient matador doll called Don Juan Diego (Ricky Martin). But Diego is afraid that mass-production will rob him of his uniqueness, while Jeronicus’ apprentice and inspiring inventor Gustafson (Miles Barrow) is tired of feeling overlooked. The two run off together, with Gustafson also stealing Jeronicus’ book of inventions. Jeronicus grows into a cantankerous and discouraged old man (played by Forest Whitaker), especially after his wife dies and his neglected daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) moves away, while Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) grows his own toy empire. But when Jessica sends her daughter Journey (Madalen Mills)—who shares her grandfather’s passion for inventing—to visit him, her spirit revitalizes Jeronicus as they work to save another invention from Gustafson. “Jingle Jangle” is chock full of plot and characters, but it is equally brimming with Christmas spirit, huge and colorful music numbers, and creativity. The contemporary pop songs manage to feel right at home in the old-timey setting, as do the CGI effects butted right up against old-fashioned practical sets. The music really is very good, and some of the big dance numbers are absolutely show-stopping. The film has a very sweet message about family and believing in yourself as well, aided by its cast, which ranges from veterans like Whitaker and Rose to talented newcomers like the spunky Mills and Kieron L. Dyer, who plays Jeronicus’ new young assistant Edison. It’s also wonderful to see a film like this where all of the main roles are inhabited by Black actors and people of color, creating an inclusive feeling that some of the old favorites lack. Bits of the film drag here and there, but overall, its rewatchability factor is high, and it’s a unique and fun entry that stands out among Netflix’s other holiday releases. The cast also includes Phylicia Rashad, Hugh Bonneville, and Lisa Davina Phillip. Runtime: 122 minutes. Rated PG.
Aneesh Chaganty’s second feature following the fantastic “Searching” may lack that film’s originality, but it sure is fun to watch. “Run” is a thriller that follows Diane (Sarah Paulson) and her daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen). The opening scene reveals that Diane gave birth to Chloe prematurely; fast forward to years later and Chloe, now preparing to go college, is paralyzed, in a wheelchair, while also sick with a myriad of other illnesses including diabetes, asthma, and arrhythmia. But Chloe becomes suspicious of her mother’s intentions after she starts giving her daughter an unfamiliar green pill. The plot of “Run” borders on ridiculous, and we’ve seen this sort of story before. But Chaganty perfectly paces the film with disturbing reveal after disturbing reveal, firmly places the audience in Chloe’s point of view so that we feel her dread. The suspense is aided by the haunting score by Toni Borrowdale. It also helps that Allen, in her film debut, delivers a completely convincing and riveting performance; a nail-biting scene that occurs on a roof-top is particularly noteworthy. Paulson, who has become somewhat of a horror queen in the last few years, is delightfully unhinged, even if her performance has more of a camp factor than Allen’s. All in all, “Run” will get audiences’ blood pumping without leaving them disturbed long after the credits roll. Runtime: 90 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“MANGROVE” (Amazon Prime Video)
“Mangrove” is the first installment in director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film anthology series, which shines a spotlight on London’s West Indian immigrant community from the late 1960s thru the early 1980s. “Mangrove” is about the trial of nine Black activists who were accused of inciting a riot during a protest against the police, a landmark case for civil rights in Great Britain. The film focuses primarily on four of them: Mangrove restaurant owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), activists Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), and Black Panther member Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright). The courtroom scenes are compelling, and McQueen shows how Howe and Jones—representing themselves—and the others—represented by barristers David Croft (Richard Cordery) and Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden)—butted with the racist leanings of the court, such as when they pushed for an all-Black jury, but were denied (the jury ultimately only had two Black members on it). But the film doesn’t succumb to the trappings of the genre (see “The Trial of the Chicago 7”), and when the ruling is read out at the end of the trial, McQueen focuses the camera on one character, making it less about the victory, and more about the pain the defendants have gone through. It’s made more meaningful because McQueen takes his time getting to the trial; almost the first entire hour of the film portrays the constant harassment and brutality the characters were facing at the hands of the police, often headed by constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), who was known for his aggressive and prejudiced methods of policing. We see how common raids on the Mangrove were, and the rage and frustration the characters feel is made even more understandable thanks to the time we spend with them. But McQueen’s film succeeds as more than a courtroom drama. It’s also a celebration of the community the film series is depicting. Through it all, the community is constantly coming together, eating, gathering, dancing, protesting. They are more than just figures on a stand, and that, along with the great accuracy with which McQueen portrayed the event, makes “Mangrove” a must-watch and a promising start for Small Axe. Runtime: 127 minutes. Not rated.
“DOLLY PARTON’S CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE” (Netflix)
“Christmas on the Square” is perhaps the corniest new movie you’ll watch this holiday season, but you know what? That’s okay. The musical drama directed by Debbie Allen follows cold-hearted Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski), who returns to her hometown after the death of her father—who owned the town—and decides to sell it and evict all the residents by Christmas day. But she is shown the error of her ways thanks to an angel (Dolly Parton) and an angel in training. There is a lot happening in “Christmas on the Square,” and it’s essentially an amalgamation of every trope in the book: there’s the Scrooge/Christmas Carol thread, an old flame, an adoption mystery, an accident, and a medical problem, all of which get resolved in the final five minutes, with a small dose of religion thrown in (but the pastor, played by Josh Segarra, is named Christian, in case the rest of it isn’t on the nose enough for you). Still, it’s hard to deny the way that “Christmas on the Square” plugs cheerily along, with its makeshift sets and big dance numbers that make you feel like you’re watching a Broadway show. Parton wrote all of the music for the movie, and while the songs may not all be memorable, they’re lovely and pleasant to listen to and help move the story and the character development along. Baranski delivers a solid performance that adds a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s silly, but charming, and when it’s bad, it’s the sort of bad that’s still fun to watch. The cast also includes Treat Williams, Jenifer Lewis, and Jeanine Mason. Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated TV-PG.