Including the romance All My Life, George Clooney's The Midnight Sky, Pixar's Soul and Wild Mountain Thyme
By Norman Wilner
Dec 25, 2020
Patti Perret/Universal Pictures
NOW critics pick what’s new to streaming and VOD for the weekend of December 25. Plus: Everything new to VOD and streaming platforms.
All My Life
It’s really something to watch committed performances and a sharp eye turn potentially leaden material into something moving. And that’s what happens in this true-life tale of romance, tragedy and crowdfunding that somehow feels like the best possible version of a potentially cheesy story. It’s a modern-day studio weepie, turning the story of Toronto couple Jenn Carter and Sol Chau – whose friends launched an online campaign to pay for their 2015 dream wedding when Sol was diagnosed with aggressive liver cancer – into an idealized melodrama, with Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. playing instant soulmates whose connection sustains them through an unimaginable challenge. Every time the movie edges towards saccharine cuteness, the reality of Sol’s illness brings it back down to earth – which explains why Meyers, whose previous directorial credit was the similarly self-aware My Friend Dahmer, is at the helm. The wrong choices could have made this feel cliché and overtly manipulative, underlining the tear-jerking trajectory of Todd Rosenberg’s script; instead, Meyers makes All My Life as smitten with Jenn and Sol as they were with each other, and his movie becomes a celebration of the life they could have made. Give it a chance. 106 minutes. Now available to rent on digital and on demand. NNN (Norman Wilner)
Roald Dahl’s The Witches
The most magical thing about Zemeckis’ adaptation is its casting. The new take has Anne Hathaway vamping it up in a role once occupied by Angelica Huston in the 1990 movie. Hathaway sneers, slithers and tries to stomp out children that she turns into mice with committed glee. But more importantly, the movie also finds a charming young Black lead in Jahzir Bruno, who stars opposite Octavia Spencer as his hero’s grandmother. Together they throw a little hot sauce in Dahl’s brew. The movie doesn’t make a big deal about inclusivity nor does it push any kind of messaging to derail its light and formulaically fun family entertainment. Instead, it applies a light hand to acknowledge the weight of that casting. Wary of the danger afoot, Spencer’s grandma pulls her ward from their modest home and heads to an expensive hotel. She explains that witches like to prey on kids that no one pays attention to, as she retreats from a vulnerable Black community to a wealthy white bubble for safety. That says all that needs to be said. 118 minutes. Now available to rent on digital and on demand. NNN (RS)
The Midnight Sky
George Clooney’s mournful drama about the choices we make at the end of the world leans heavily on Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which were far more successful at doing the sort of things producer/director Clooney clearly wants to do here, but fails to achieve. The producer/director stars as Augustine, a dying astronomer who chooses to stay behind at a remote Arctic observatory after an undefined apocalypse has wiped out almost all life on Earth. He also finds himself caring for a little girl (Caoilinn Springall) he finds hiding in his observatory – and taking her with him on a dangerous journey to a distant radio station to warn a returning crew of astronauts (Felicity Jones, Daniel Oyelowo, Demian Bichír, Tiffany Boone, Kyle Chandler) to abandon Earth.
There are things about The Midnight Sky that work very well: Clooney’s sad, broken performance, the rapport between Jones and Oyelowo, the striking production design, the outstanding visual effects. But they’re lost in a final flurry of putative surprises meant to hammer home the true cost of Augustine’s misplaced priorities, but which wind up severing any connection we might have had to the story. Full review here. 118 minutes. Now streaming on Netflix. NN (NW)
(Pete Docter, Kemp Powers)
After years of toiling in obscurity as a high-school music teacher, jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) gets what could be his big break as a performer – and falls down a manhole, his soul ejected into a netherworld called The Great Before, where he finds himself trying to help a cranky human-to-be (Tina Fey) find the “spark” that’ll drive her in life… and, in the process, get back to his own. If that sounds kind of weird, well… yeah. There’s a frustrating incoherence to Soul, which feels like it was assembled from three very different pitches: a high-concept meditation on individuality and personality that leans heavily on elements director/co-writer Docter used in Inside Out; a Heaven Can Wait meets All Of Me farce that takes over the second act; and a more thoughtful story about the value of an individual life to everyone but the person living it. Each of those has its moments, but slammed together into one feature, they feel like they’re fighting for dominance from one scene to the next, resulting in a film that, for all the work that’s clearly gone into it, just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say. Full review here. 100 min. Available to stream on Disney+ Friday, December 25. NNN (NW)
Wild Mountain Thyme
(John Patrick Shanley)
There are whimsical Irish romances, and then there is Wild Mountain Thyme, a movie where the whimsy runs thick as honey – its weight and relentless, syrupy sweetness gradually suffocates the entire venture. Adapting his play Outside Mullingar, writer/director Shanley is running a reverse Moonstruck, with farmer Anthony (Jamie Dornan) angrily rejecting the overtures of neighbouring farmer Rosemary (Emily Blunt) for years and years, only to be stung when his American cousin Adam (Jon Hamm) arrives and asserts himself as a rival for her affections. (Christopher Walken is around as Anthony’s ailing father Tony, who’s debating whether to will his land to Anthony or Adam.) Like all of Shanley’s work, the genuine moments are locked in a death battle with the ridiculous ones: the scenes in the village pub are charming as hell, and Blunt and Hamm are surprisingly well-matched as two people who know their own minds. But any spell the story might cast is undone by Anthony’s furiously guarded reason for refusing Rosemary… which, when finally brought to light, is a total buzzkill. 102 min. Now available on digital and on demand. NN (NW)
Available on VOD
All My Life
Jessica Rothe, Harry Shum Jr., Jay Pharoah; directed by Marc Meyers
If you weren’t willing to see it in a theatre this summer, Christopher Nolan’s time-bending action epic comes home this week in a typically exquisite home video edition. Nolan may complain about digital cinema being a poor substitute for the experience of photochemical film, but the home versions of his movies are always reference-quality presentations. And Tenet is no different, the frame shifting between conventional 35mm and screen-filling IMAX while the Dolby Atmos audio growls and rattles through your speakers. And if empty spectacle is ultimately all Tenet has to offer, it still offers it at a truly impressive scale: the scrambled plot never makes a whole lot of sense no matter how many times people explain it to John David Washington’s driven hero, and the emotional underpinnings feel like they were pasted into the script on its way to the printer. But Nolan’s gargantuan set pieces are incredible to behold – especially in the 4K disc, which comes awfully close to replicating the large-format experience if one has a big enough screen.
A life-long Torontonian, Norman became the senior film writer for NOW in early 2008. Previously he had reviewed films for Metro newspapers across Canada and covered every video format imaginable (yes, even Beta).