Happy December! Here’s part two of my mini reviews for new movies that came to streaming in November. Keep scrolling for reviews of “Hillbilly Elegy,” “The Christmas Chronicles 2,” “The Princess Switch: Switched Again,” “Lovers Rock,” “Happiest Season,” “Uncle Frank,” and “Black Beauty.”
“HILLBILLY ELEGY” (Netflix)
There are a lot of stories we need to see on screen right now, and “Hillbilly Elegy” is definitely not one of them. The drama directed by Ron Howard is based on J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name. It opens with J.D. as a young adult (Gabriel Basso) attending Yale, but he has a hard time fitting in to the elitist society. When he gets word that his troubled mother Bev (Amy Adams) has overdosed and is in the hospital, he returns to his poor Ohio hometown to face his past. The film frequently flashes back to J.D.’s childhood (young J.D. is played by Owen Asztalos), where we see him often abused and neglected by his mother, and clashing with his Mamaw (Glenn Close), who steps in to help care for him despite the fact that she wasn’t a model mother for Bev either. Close delivers the best performance in the movie, one that is more restrained and genuine than Adams’—although I don’t fault Adams for that as much as I fault the material, as some of the dialogue in the film is extremely cringe-worthy. But it’s clear despite the issues of poverty, addiction, abuse, and abandonment that these characters face, “Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t interested in delving deep into any of them, opting instead for something closer to a crowd-pleaser. There are some individual scenes that are moving, but as a whole the structure of the film is messy and doesn’t leave the audience or the characters in a better place of understanding than they were before. We see the characters doing more harm than good, and ultimately we don’t care for Mamaw or Bev or J.D., who returns to Yale after his ordeal seemingly satisfied, but it’s hard to see why when it feels like we are in the exact same place where we started. Ultimately, “Hillbilly Elegy” opts for Oscar bait shine over grit, and perpetuates the stereotypes that it seems to be trying to tear down. Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated R.
“THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2” (Netflix)
2018’s “The Christmas Chronicles” is the sort of heart-warming and fun holiday movie I can see myself watching every year. It’s new sequel, “The Christmas Chronicles 2,” however, feels more like and one and done kind of deal. It picks up a couple of years after the previous film left off. Teddy Pierce (Judah Lewis), his younger sister Kate (Darby Camp), and their mom Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) are spending Christmas in Cancun with Claire’s new boyfriend Bob (Tyrese Gibson) and Bob’s son Jack (Jazhir Bruno). Kate is unhappy and afraid that her mom is forgetting her dad, so she decides to run away. But Jack tags along, and they are intercepted by Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), a former elf now out for revenge against Santa Claus. Belsnickel sends them to the North Pole, where Kate is reunited with Santa (Kurt Russell), meets Mrs. Claus (Goldie Hawn), and gets to see Santa’s village—but it will fall on all of them to save Christmas from Belsnickel’s schemes. “The Christmas Chronicles 2” is directed by Chris Columbus, who served as producer on the first movie, and it takes on a much different tone and type of story from its predecessor. That’s not a bad thing—after all, who wants to see another version of the exact same movie—but Columbus opts for big special effects and action driven scenes over character moments that cause the sequel to lack the magic the original had. The prominence of Santa’s elves—who played a relatively small role in the first film—is much larger this time around, lending everything a much more cartoonish quality, and Kate and Jack don’t get the same amount of bonding opportunities that Kate and Teddy did in the first film. However, the story does still have some heart—whereas the first movie dealt primarily with Teddy’s struggles with his dad’s passing, this time, it’s Kate coming to terms with it. And it’s fun to see the design of Santa’s village, and learn some of the lore behind it. Russell is still perfectly cast as Santa, and it’s fun to see his real-life partner Hawn—who only had a cameo at the end of the first movie—play a much larger role here. Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated PG.
“THE PRINCESS SWITCH: SWITCHED AGAIN” (Netflix)
“The Princess Switch: Switched Again” is even more ridiculous than its predecessor, and it knows it. But the silliness makes for a fun and light-hearted rom-com that doesn’t ask the viewer to take it too seriously. This sequel directed by Mike Rohl picks up a couple years after “The Princess Switch” left off. Former Chicago baker Stacy (Vanessa Hudgens) is now Princess of Belgravia after marrying Prince Edward (Sam Palladio). Her lookalike, Princess Margaret, however, is having a hard time. She broke up with Kevin (Nick Sagar) and is now taking over the throne of Montenaro after the late king’s son abdicated. Stacy, Edward, Kevin, and his daughter Olivia (Mia Lloyd) go to Montenaro to spend Christmas with Margaret and attend her coronation, and Stacy comes up with a scheme for them to switch places again so Margaret can spend time with Kevin. But things are complicated by Margaret’s not-so-nice cousin, Lady Fiona, who also looks just like her and wants to take over the throne for herself. It takes a while for the movie to get to the actual switch this time. It doesn’t play around with the mistaken identities nearly as much as the first movie (despite the addition of a third lookalike), and everything resolves itself quickly and with little conflict. But the outrageousness of a third lookalike on its own is amusing, and Hudgen’s campy performances and terrible assortment of accents are fun to watch. Stacy and Margaret are both essentially good people, so it’s great to see her get to play a completely different and nasty personality this time, and it looks like she is enjoying herself doing it. And for those looking for some Christmas cheer amidst all the hijinks, there’s plenty of it to be found in this movie, whose sets have had as many lights and decorations dumped on them as humanly possible. Runtime: 96 minutes. Rated TV-G.
“LOVERS ROCK” (Amazon Prime Video)
Director Steve McQueen may be best known for his heavier movies, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more joyous film this year than “Lovers Rock,” the second installment in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. “Lovers Rock” is a 70 minute slice-of-life set at a blues house party in 1980s West London, at a time when Black people weren’t welcome in many of the city’s predominantly white nightclubs. The film follows several characters over the course of the evening as they sing and sway to the reggae music known as “lovers rock,” particularly focusing on Martha (Amara-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward), two young people who meet and fall for each other at the party. There are some little dramas that play out among the characters in between the dancing; thanks to the dialogue, costuming, and choreography, these characters feel alive and richly drawn, despite the lack of a concrete story or much more in the way of information about them. We are invested in the budding romance between Franklyn and Martha, and left yearning to know what happens to them after the sun rises. “Lovers Rock” also features one of the best scenes in any movie this year, when all of the partygoers take to the dance floor as one in one beautiful, celebratory moment of joy and togetherness. “Lovers Rock” is an ode to the music, and to the Black youth it was made for. Runtime: 68 minutes. Not rated.
“HAPPIEST SEASON” (Hulu)
There are so few holiday movies that revolve around LGBTQ romances that when we do see one it’s worth celebrating. That doesn’t mean that “Happiest Season” isn’t entirely beyond reproach, however. Directed and co-written by Clea DuVall, who based the story on her own experiences, the film is about Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a lesbian couple who go to Harper’s home for Christmas so Abby can meet her family. The only problem is, Harper hasn’t come out to her parents yet, and wants to wait until after the holidays to tell them because her dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor and she doesn’t want to cause a scandal. So they pretend to be merely roommates. “Happiest Season” is equal parts comedy and drama, with Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) and two sisters Jane (Mary Holland) and Sloane (Alison Brie) getting some of the biggest laughs. The film also notably costars Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s former girlfriend Riley and Dan Levy as Abby’s friend John. Stewart also appears very at ease in her role as her character very obviously loves Harper but is also uncomfortable with her family and their ruse. But “Happiest Season,” for all the representation it has both in front of and behind the camera, doesn’t depict the healthiest relationship. The way Harper treats Abby starts to feel manipulative after a while, and it doesn’t feel like she does enough to make amends. Abby is forced to question whether Harper loves her as much as she loves Harper when Harper starts spending more time with her old friends (particularly her ex-boyfriend), so they viewer almost starts rooting for Abby and Riley—who have much better chemistry—to get together instead. The film also has a couple of storylines where characters are cruelly outed, depriving them—and the viewer—of the opportunity of every knowing for sure whether coming out was a choice they would have eventually made on their own. Hopefully at some point, we’ll get an LGBTQ Christmas movie where the characters are allowed to just be okay with who they are. Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“BLACK BEAUTY” (2020) (Disney Plus)
Disney’s new adaptation of Anna Sewell’s classic 1877 novel may not be as ambitious as its source material, nor does it do a lot to stand out from the hundreds of other horse movies out there, but it’s heart-warming enough to make it worth a watch. The film, written and directed by Ashley Avis, moves the story’s action to the present-day American West, where a mustang (voiced by Kate Winslet) is taken from her family by wranglers and purchased by a trainer named John (Iain Glen), who takes her back to his horse sanctuary. The horse—who no one else could tame—is later befriended by John’s niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy), who reluctantly comes to live with him after her parents are killed. Jo names the horse Beauty, and while the beginning and end of the film centers primarily on Beauty’s experiences from her point of view as she travels from owner to owner, this middle bit meanders somewhat as it attempts to also make the story about Jo, John, and the other humans. Sewell’s novel was told entirely from Beauty’s point of view, with the mission of raising awareness for animal cruelty and sympathy for the horse as more than just an animal. Avis’ film is most successful when it does this, whether Beauty is being forced to ride for a cruel rich girl or overworked pulling a carriage in Central Park. At times it feels more sad than informative, but Winslet’s rich voice—voicing the inner thoughts of the horse—is engaging. The cinematography by David Proctor is also really lovely, from warm sunsets on the beach to the coldness of New York City. At times “Black Beauty” is depressing to the point where I wonder whether younger children will fully engage with the film, but on the whole it makes for solid family viewing on Disney Plus. Runtime: 110 minutes. Not rated.
“UNCLE FRANK” (Amazon Prime Video)
“Uncle Frank” was one of November’s sweetest surprises. The dramedy written and directed by Alan Ball is part road movie and part coming out story. It opens in 1970s South Carolina, where Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) moves to New York City to attend NYU, where her favorite uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a professor. While there, Beth discovers that Frank is gay, and has been in a secret relationship with a man named Walid (who goes by Wally, played by Peter Macdissi) for the last decade. Frank makes Beth—who is accepting of them—promise not to tell the rest of their family, but when Beth’s grandfather and Frank’s father suddenly dies, they have to take a road trip home for the funeral, and Frank is forced to confront his family, past and present. Uncle Frank is a career-best role for Bettany, who convincingly portrays the heart-break Frank feels at being essentially disowned by his father (who figured out Frank’s secret while the rest of the family was still in the dark), his desperation to keep up appearances, and his anxiety at the rest of the family finding out, and what will happen if they do. And in a time period when being publicly gay could literally threaten your life, he had good reason to be worried. Macdissi’s performance is equally wonderful. His character is more carefree than Frank, but he is running from his own family and culture for fear of being persecuted as well. This is also a great role for Lillis, but while the film begins with a focus on her character—and it seems like “Uncle Frank” will tell Frank’s story through her eyes—she is largely left behind by the end of the film when the movie pivots to focus primarily on Frank. Otherwise, Ball does a good job juggling what could have felt like multiple different movies in one and bringing them together in a cohesive whole. And for all the heart-break I mentioned before, “Uncle Frank” is also quite a funny film. The ending feels rather unbelievable and rushed and takes some agency away from Frank (see my review of “Happiest Season” above, although the Frank/Wally relationship seems to be a much healthier one than Harper/Abby) but I’d rather see its sweet message of love and acceptance than one of rejection. Costarring Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, and Stephen Root. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated R.