“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” Review!

It’s appropriate that the most purely, unironically wonderful movie of this gloomy year goes hand-in-hand with “the most wonderful time of the year”, the holiday season. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is adorned with all the  embellishments of the most nostalgic classics, but this lighthearted yet surprisingly impactful steampunk Christmas epic has a potent, forward-looking magic that is entirely its own. To say it’s epic is no joke either: the story is action-packed, punctuated by dazzling musical interludes, and spanning five generations of one incredibly inventive family.

Jingle Jangle
Jingle Jangle | variety.com

That this magical, multi-generational family happens to be Black and specifically comprised mostly of Black women is not merely a more accurate and inclusive reflection of the world we live in, but is also deeply important to the film’s hopeful message. Although I will leave the matter of whether or not Jingle Jangle is good representation to Black film critics and viewers, I will say that the film’s joyful, diverse, steampunk world left me feeling so inspired and empowered that I truly hope it will do the same for Black audiences of all ages, who haven’t seen themselves represented anywhere near enough in mainstream media: neither in holiday movies, nor in steampunk – which, to be honest, has never been translated particularly well to a live-action medium until now. And whereas a majority of steampunk gets justly criticized for what often feels like an inability by the genre to break free of the same-old Euro-centric, imperialist tropes, Jingle Jangle brings with it an entirely fresh and unique “Afro-Victorian” aesthetic: something that is layered into the styling for the hair, make-up, and costume design, as well as some of the film’s most inspired musical selections – most notably a remix of Ghanaian artist Bisa Kdei’s Afrobeat hit “Asew”, which plays over a lively snowball fight.

With Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend producing, it’s no wonder that Jingle Jangle has the lineup of standout vocal talents and songwriters that it does – including Legend himself, who contributed his talents personally to what is, unsurprisingly, the film’s best song: “Make It Work”, an epic duet between stars Forest Whitaker and Anika Noni Rose. Thanks to compelling dance choreography by The Greatest Showman‘s Ashley Wallen and David E. Talbert’s eye-catching direction, none of these musical numbers fall flat, though a few are simply too short: with Ricky Martin in particular being given very little time or material to work with, and the aforementioned Rose (the iconic voice behind Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess) only getting one opportunity to flaunt her vocal strengths – so deep into the film’s runtime I was scared she wouldn’t get to sing at all.

Jingle Jangle
Jessica Jangle | ew.com

Rose’s Jessica Jangle, however, has a fairly small role; and it’s understandable – though regrettable – that she doesn’t have more to do. The majority of the film focuses on the dynamic between her father, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), and her own daughter, Journey (promising newcomer Madalen Mills, whose equipped with an incredible voice). Jeronicus, once the most imaginative toy-maker and inventor in all the land, is now a cranky old man living above a pawnbroker’s shop, while Journey is, of course, the bright and sparky young soul who must help him save himself and the last of his long-lost inventions, a robot named Buddy that flies and talks and runs on belief (“believepunk” doesn’t sound quite as catchy as steampunk, though), something that Jeronicus has been sorely lacking as him and his business have fallen into disrepair over the years.

The supporting cast are all excellent, but the one standout whom I simply have to mention is Lisa Davina Phillip, who plays the mail-carrier Ms. Johnston. Fun, flirtatious, and constantly accompanied by a trio of random backup dancers who pop up out of nowhere like sidekicks in an animated movie, Johnston is one of the most delightful comedic relief characters I’ve seen in a while, and I hope that Phillip, whose filmography is still relatively small, gets much more work off this outstandingly good role. Her expressive facial acting and comedic timing even overshadow the film’s campy bad guy.

Keegan-Michael Key plays this character, a hopelessly unimaginative inventor by the name of Gustafson who is somehow under the sway of a narcissistic toy matador named Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin), who plots his escape from Jeronicus Jangle’s emporium early on in the film after overhearing his maker’s plan to mass-produce him for the enjoyment of children worldwide. With bland writing, unclear motivations, and a string of jokes that simply aren’t funny, Gustafson and Don Juan are the weak links in this movie. The plot misses a golden opportunity with their characters, too: if Gustafson’s plan is to become fabulously wealthy by stealing all of Jeronicus’ inventions, and Don Juan’s only fear is of being mass-produced and sold, wouldn’t that create a potential conflict of interest between the two? Especially since Gustafson doesn’t actually have any reason to obey the tin toy’s orders (since he is, you know, a toy and all)? Apparently not, since this glaringly obvious solution to all of Gustafson’s problems is taken off the table by Don Juan having apparently “forced” Gustafson to destroy the blueprint for his design offscreen…and again I ask, how can a toy force a human to do anything?

Jingle Jangle
Gustafson | denofgeek.com

Jingle Jangle‘s costume designer Michael Wilkinson can only do so much for Gustafson’s half-baked character, but his talent is on display everywhere else in the film, in the elegant array of costumes created from a clever mixture of European and African-inspired patterns and styles. Hairstylist Sharon Martin, meanwhile, was assigned the task of recreating Black Victorian hairstyles based on rare photographs from the era: her designs in particular come across as both authentic and beautiful, a tribute to the enduring power and artistry of Black hairstyling.

In a year as exhausting as this one has been, fun and lighthearted films like Jingle Jangle are especially necessary for the respite they offer from day-to-day fears and worries. This is doubly significant given how often Hollywood continues to depict Black characters onscreen only as they exist in relation to traumatic subjects such as slavery and racism, subjects that Hollywood usually exploits for easy Oscar-bait: to see Black heroes and heroines starring in a cheerful holiday musical adventure movie that exists simply to be fun is groundbreaking because of how simple it seems. But that simple magic is what I find to be Jingle Jangle’s strongest asset, and the secret ingredient in this delightful story that will keep audiences coming back for many Christmases to come.

Movie Rating: 9/10

“Anastasia” Review!

So…this isn’t really a Christmas movie, or a holiday-themed movie in general. In fact, most of Fox Animation’s Anastasia takes place in the spring or summer. But just as the film has often been mistaken for a Disney Princess movie ever since its release in 1997 and is now even being categorized under the Princesses section on Disney+ (where it arrived on the 4th of this month), so to has Anastasia acquired a lasting reputation as a winter movie thanks to its iconic theme, Once Upon A December, one of only three memorable songs in the entire movie; and its early scenes in frigid Saint Petersburg during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Anastasia
Anastasia and Rasputin | eonline.com

Obviously, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, this movie has glaring historical inaccuracies. As many, if not more than, Disney’s Pocahontas: which is saying something. And look, I get it. The mystery of Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna’s “disappearance” is timeless and alluring, and in 1997 still technically unsolved…but even then, most people had already come to the logical conclusion (confirmed in 2009, after DNA testing) that Anastasia, like the rest of her family, was murdered by a Soviet firing squad. The long line of impostors who famously claimed to be the lost Romanov Princess were just that, impostors: most of them vying for the family’s fortunes rather than the throne of Russia. There’s even reason to believe the rumors of Anastasia’s survival were circulated by the Soviets themselves as a harmless distraction from the violent truth. Over the years, she’s become an almost mythical figure: whether she’s mythic enough to warrant a romantic fairytale about her life is a question for the ages.

But the film doesn’t just paint an inaccurate depiction of one historical figure’s life. More offensively in my opinion, it also makes the laughable decision to portray all of Anastasia’s family as heroes, whose opulent existence is justified because of how elegant and righteous they are. The truth is that the Romanovs (specifically Tsar Nicholas, Anastasia’s father) were tyrannical aristocrats who unknowingly orchestrated their own destruction. And in reality, the Bolshevik Revolution was spurred by Russia’s poor and battle-worn citizens, who rose up in protest of the Tsar’s crimes against his people – they were not inspired by demons under the control of the mystic Rasputin, a controversial and fascinating figure whom history has remembered as a devilish villain for reasons unfathomable to me. Even today, films like The King’s Man still rely on that trope. Obviously, movies are going to mess around with the truth: animated family movies especially. But who makes an animated family movie about a brutally murdered Tsarist princess to begin with?

Don Bluth, that’s who: and his talent shines through in the finished work, because Anastasia‘s stunning animation is among its strongest elements, blending the traditional hand-drawn style with bits and pieces of vivid CGI – still quite new at the time, and alarmingly beautiful even today, after 23 years. The character design is marginally more interesting than Disney’s formula, with Anastasia (voiced by Meg Ryan) in particular having a more mature face than many of her teenaged equivalents over at the House of Mouse.

Anastasia
Anastasia and Tsar Nicholas | themarysue.com

Meg Ryan and John Cusack are both well-cast, and perfectly likable as Anastasia and the con-artist Dimitri, who initially tries to pass off the unassuming amnesiac girl as the lost Romanov princess before realizing that she’s the real deal. Anastasia, despite bearing little more than a passable physical resemblance to her real-life counterpart, is actually a really compelling character in animation: confident, capable, and pro-active, taking the lead when she’s in trouble and fixing problems on her own. She’s not a damsel in distress, and it’s she, not Dimitri, who takes on the villain in the third act and defeats him. When this movie was released, no Disney Princess could boast the same claim (Mulan would become the studio’s first, a year later). Additionally, the movie puts a fun little twist on the classic “happily ever after” trope, which for most Disney Princesses means marriage, by having Anastasia and Dimitri elope and run off together instead (a minor scandal in comparison to the political crisis that Anastasia’s reappearance probably should have sparked in 1920’s Europe: something the film never addresses).

But as Disney demonstrated time and time again during the height of its Renaissance, a good animated movie needs a good animated villain – and by animated, I mean both literally and figuratively: the best of Disney’s villains are the big, bold, campy caricatures who leap off the screen thanks to their eccentric mannerisms, comedic vocal performances, and eye-catching designs. Think Ursula, Scar, Captain Hook, Jafar, or Cruella De Vil. Anastasia‘s villain, the mystic Rasputin (voiced by Christopher Lloyd), is a half-baked imitation of these and others. He’s cool in theory, a turbulent evil spirit trapped in Limbo, with limbs and appendages constantly popping off and scurrying away: but he’s also just…trapped in Limbo for most of the movie, relying on his minions to do his dirty work. He’s a big, bold, campy caricature that’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do until the third act. And whereas most Disney villains interact with the protagonist at least once or twice before their final confrontation, Rasputin doesn’t. So he nears success, but falls short of true greatness.

The other key ingredient in a Disney movie is a collection of hit songs that drive the plot forward and allow characters to reveal their motivations and goals to the audience in a dynamic and engaging way, rather than just unloading it all in a series of exposition dumps. Anastasia emulates the best of the best, but its songs – apart from “Once Upon A December” – don’t really match the film’s grandiose subject matter. “Journey To The Past” is probably the most effective song in the movie, being the next step up from an “I Want” song, in that Anastasia isn’t just singing about something inaccessible she yearns to have; she’s already singing about how she’s going to get what she wants, and simultaneously setting off on her physical and emotional journey (and interestingly, in recent years, Disney Princesses have begun to follow suit: “Almost There” from Princess And The Frog, “Let It Go” from Frozen, and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana are all songs about and accompanied by action). One has to wonder how much of the film’s progressive attitude is the result of Carrie Fisher, an uncredited screenwriter who apparently lent her talents to helping craft the entire “Journey To The Past” sequence.

Anastasia
Anastasia | ew.com

It’s deeply ironic that Anastasia, which shamelessly followed the tried-and-true Disney formula and battled Disney’s Hercules for box-office supremacy in 1997, is now a Disney movie thanks to the Disney/Fox merger, and is already being ranked among the studio’s legendary princesses – although she’s still unofficial, and is unlikely to ever retroactively become an actual member of the line-up. When Anastasia released, Disney concentrated all its efforts on trying to sabotage the film’s marketing strategy, even re-releasing The Little Mermaid on the same day, and banning the film’s corporate sponsors from advertising on ABC’s Wonderful World Of Disney program. Now, the official Disney+ Twitter account has been busy promoting the movie as if nothing ever happened. That’s what I call character development (or typical capitalism: you decide).

Movie Rating: 8/10

“Carol” Review! Is It A Christmas Movie Or Not?

Is 2015’s Carol a Christmas movie, in the proper sense of the phrase? Some would argue it is simply by virtue of being set in the last few weeks of December (and because one of the most memorable scenes in the movie revolves around the subject of Christmas presents), but in my opinion, it’s even a bit deeper than that.

Carol
Carol Aird | cinemablographer.com

Carol utilizes Christmas for more than just pretty set dressing. The overwhelming noise and chaotic hustle of the holiday season provides the perfect backdrop to the quiet, intimate, love story at the film’s core. The crowds of confused and hurried shoppers rushing to find gifts is an unmistakable parallel to the confusion of any whirlwind romance, but particularly one shared by two women in an unaccepting era – when even the terminology for sexual orientation was still unclear and mostly derogatory. And Christmas brings with it a whole slew of constraints and restrictions on the time our heroines can spend together without being watched. But…whenever the romance finally has a moment to breathe, everything goes quiet. The noise dies down until it’s little more than a murmur in the background; Carter Burwell’s Oscar-nominated score gently reinforces the building passion; and the spirit of Christmas is discovered in simple things like snowfall on a terrace at night, a Christmas tree purchased on the spur of the moment, or an abrupt winter getaway out west.

Based on The Price Of Salt (a semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1952 by Patricia Highsmith under a pseudonym and later republished in 1990 as Carol under her real name), Carol remains a milestone in LGBTQ+ representation in film: the movie that launched a thousand awards-friendly atmospheric period dramas about introspective white lesbians. The story is small-scale on the surface – a series of electric interactions between two women that quickly becomes a fling, and then a romance – but the stakes couldn’t be higher for either character: Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is at risk of losing custody of her daughter if her sexuality is discovered, while Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is already engaged to a man for whom she has no feelings. The chemistry between the two actresses is the primary reason for why the movie works as well as it does, and for why it feels so genuine and impactful.

Carol
Therese Belivet and Carol Aird | artforum.com

Carol, the mysterious, multi-faceted woman around whom the story revolves, is the older and wiser of the two; but while her years have given her a flippant attitude towards life and a steady, self-assured command over herself, her surroundings, and her sexuality, they haven’t quieted her desire to finally live freely. Blanchett owns the role like a revelation wrapped up in an epiphany and a sensuous mink coat. And what’s brilliant about Blanchett’s performance (here and elsewhere) is that she never feels the need to overdo anything. Every one of her movements, mannerisms, facial expressions, winks, and subtle half-smiles is loaded with purpose – but so casually conveyed that Blanchett never comes off as fishing for Oscars. Oftentimes, the philosophical dialogue spouted in dramas can come off as inorganic and bizarrely forced, but Blanchett’s line-readings, delivered in that famously deep register that she might as well trademark, are equal halves relatable and enchanting.

The strength of Mara’s performance is in how clearly and vividly she expresses her love for Carol. While the extent of Carol’s feelings toward Therese Belivet are necessarily mysterious and unclear until the very end of the film (and Blanchett easily sells that aura of mystery, where you never know if something she’s said has a double entendre or a hidden meaning), the entire story hinges on Therese’s immediate attraction to Carol. It sounds quite simple – Cate Blanchett is a magnetic personality, after all – but Mara succeeds at convincing us that Therese’s devotion goes deeper than a surface-level. And although the film can’t take us into Therese’s head like the novel, it gets as close as it possibly can. Director Todd Haynes stages each romantic scene as if from Therese’s point of view, as she absorbs every tiny detail about her lover. That subtly allows us to also learn about Therese’s own self-doubt, which prevents her from recognizing her own worth until much later in the film, when the tables are turned.

Alongside powerhouse talents like Blanchett and Mara, it’s hard for anyone else in the movie to carve out much space for themselves. Sarah Paulson comes closest, playing Blanchett’s former lover Abby. Paulson, herself one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ actresses in Hollywood (and whose wife, Holland Taylor, was one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ actresses in Hollywood), has a key supporting role, holding her own opposite Blanchett as the latter’s foil. Also, her ability to slay in brown plaid is admirable, and I would totally watch the Carol prequel Paulson wants to make.

Behind the scenes, pretty much everybody deserves some measure of praise, because the film is a technical masterpiece: but I would especially point out Carter Burwell, whose score beautifully compliments the action; costume designer Sandy Powell, the mastermind behind Carol’s assortment of fur coats, headscarves, and sundresses; and cinematographer Edward Lachman, whose decision to shoot in grainy 16mm film is a large part of why the entire film feels so engrossing.

Carol
Carol Aird | bloomberg.com

But the key to Carol‘s success and popularity (and something which many of its predecessors and successors have forgotten or ignored) is its happy ending, something that stunned readers back in 1952 and viewers in 2015. Little has changed between those two dates, if a simple happy ending is still perceived as groundbreaking in stories (particularly romances) about LGBTQ+ characters, and too little has changed even in the five years since Carol came out. But onscreen representation matters: it has the power to uplift and to inspire. And that’s exactly what Carol‘s ending did for many viewers, by promising something better. Even if it’s not a traditional Christmas movie, it invokes the true spirit of the season far better than some.

Movie Rating: 9.5/10

“Last Christmas” Second Trailer!

Another trailer has dropped for Last Christmas, so it’s time to revisit the glittery, glitzy Christmas wonderland that director Paul Feig has created, where everybody is singing George Michael and dancing around beautifully-lit London in unnaturally well-tailored outfits: and this time, we’ve got a clearer idea of what our two love-struck protagonists are up to, and what sort of – oh, who am I kidding, let’s get to the good stuff.

Our holiday heroine’s love interest, Tom (Henry Golding), has been rumored to be a ghost/hallucination/guardian angel since the first trailer dropped, with more keen-eyed viewers than me picking up on numerous details that suggested he was, at the very least, an unusual kind of fellow. I was skeptical at the time, but since then (especially since this trailer) a lot has changed…let’s take a look at the evidence.

Throughout this latest trailer, there is a heavy emphasis on the song that inspired both the film’s title, and, supposedly, its plot: but whereas George Michael’s original song refers to Christmas heartbreak, there’s no hint of anything but true love in the film – so what if the inspiration is rather more indirect? Maybe “I gave you my heart” isn’t meant metaphorically, but…physically. In this trailer, our heroine, Kate (Emilia Clarke) narrates about how, last Christmas, she was very sick, and was rushed to a hospital for treatment: what happened there is still conveniently mysterious, but it clearly affected Kate’s life in a bad way – since then, she’s taken to drinking, and has become a moody, selfish person. But now, with another Christmas just around the corner, Kate’s life is suddenly changed by a man named Tom who just randomly shows up one day at her workplace and then runs into her everywhere else she goes – now, one reading of this would be “stalker alert”, but Tom appears to be a decent guy: as in, so decent he literally doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. Does that mean he’s an angel sent to guide Kate into the next chapter of her life? Does it mean he’s the ghost of the heart donor who saved Kate’s life last Christmas by giving her his heart?

Well, not necessarily, no; it could just mean he’s a rom-com protagonist without a whole lot of depth to his character. But the situation has become a lot more intense with these new reveals.

Also, take a look at the title: the heart over the letter “i” is literally beating. At this point, I’ll be hugely disappointed if Tom doesn’t turn out to be a visitor from heaven. Another theory suggests that Tom is actually back for revenge on the woman who’s squandering the heart he gave her, which is…interesting.

And as for the rest of the trailer, it’s pretty good: there’s perhaps a bit too much stuff rehashed from the first teaser, such as the meeting with the doctor, the incident with the hawk, and the “Lazy the Elf” exchange with Michelle Yeoh’s character. Emma Thompson gets a chance to shine, as the nurturing Russian woman who cares for Kate and sings her to sleep at night – something which Kate likens to waterboarding.

So what do you think? Will Tom turn out to be a ghost, an angel, or something else entirely? How does George Michael’s music tie into the film’s plot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Trailer Rating: 8/10