Archive | Review RSS feed for this section

The White Tiger

24 Jan

‘The White Tiger’: Tale of a caste away in India, taking a sudden, dark turn on drive to overcome

By Tom MeekFriday, January 22, 2021

Rahmin Bahrani cut a swath behind the lens with “99 Homes” (2014), a deft take on the subprime mortgage scam and 2008 housing collapse (a year before Adam McKay’s biting, brilliant “The Big Short” made us all feel stupid and complicit while laughing at ourselves), and later failed nobly with his dumbed-down TV version of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian “Fahrenheit 451” (2018) starring Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”). He again plumbs the bittersweet underbelly of the class divide with “The White Tiger,” a tale of caste upward mobility, even if there really isn’t such a thing.

The beast of the title is a rare find emblematic of freedom and the fierceness required to attain and maintain it, and also a metaphor for the film’s protagonist, Balram (Adarsh Gourav), who lives in a poor Indian village where most everything (rent and commerce) lines the pocket of a nabob referred to as “The Stork.” Balram’s big plan is to ingratiate himself to The Stork, get a job as a driver and move his way up – easier said than done in a caste society in which Horatio Alger stories are more fiction than not. Balram lucks out: The Stork’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), has newly returned from college in America accompanied by his wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), born and raised in the Big Apple. The westernized pair are aware of the class structure but not abusive of its impunity as others are; Balram tags along in dutiful compliance. We and Balram initially seem happy to be in the coddled confines of a New Delhi luxury high-rise, yet there is something darker and deeper lurking at the corners of the drama about haves and have nots, like a stalking tiger biding its time in the underbrush.

Eventually events do tilt, and quite grimly. The material, based on Aravind Adiga’s award-winning 2008 book, tumbles from fairy tale to hapless despair in a quick “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) hop, and that’s when Balram, backed into a corner, refuses to play the hand he’s dealt. How the rub works its way out becomes a conflict of systemic manipulation from above and of those kicking at the structure’s inequitable supports. It’s something of “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) if infused by Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019), haunting and brutal in its reveal by taking the ideal high life and status quo and turning it inside out with an uncompromising hand. 

Outside the Wire

17 Jan

‘Outside the Wire’: If they survive their mission, do androids dream of military pensions?

By Tom MeekFriday, January 15, 2021

There’s no way drone warfare will ever be as cinematically visceral or thrilling as flesh and blood warriors going at it hand-to-hand in the trenches. Not going to happen. The Aaron Paul vehicle “Eye in the Sky” (2015), in which the “Breaking Bad” actor played a drone pilot on U.S. soil taking out baddies abroad, isn’t going to make anyone forget “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), let alone “Fury” (2014), the WWII chess game with tanks staring Brad Pitt. But what if you sent out the ’bots to settle things? Imagine BB-8 and Robocop teaming up to take out Isis insurgents, that could work, right? “Outside the Wire” pretty much weaves all the above into an antiwar anthem that’s ironically powered by some heavy-duty blam, blam, boom shoot-em-ups.

The film lands us in the near future, with much of the action taking place in the Baltic region. There’s a Cold War tang to the landscape and it feels as if all is calm in the Middle East, as if 9/11 never happened. Much of what drives the plot is heavy-handed hooey, but there are some big ideas touched upon and some great performances. First up we have Harp (Damson Idris), a U.S. drone pilot who, like Paul’s ace, sits in a high-tech shipping container somewhere in the United States as his drone surveys a hot military operation in an Eastern Bloc country. Up against the wire, Harp chooses to hit the site despite there being friendlies in the area, his thought being that it’s better to lose two and save 30. It gets him in some hot water, earning him an assignment over in said hot zone to learn what it’s like to be under fire. The troops in this near-future scape are supported by robotic units called Gumps – think of those cool Boston Dynamics creations and you’d have the right idea – but Harp’s assigned to aid a special ops mission led by Anthony Mackie’s uber intense Capt. Leo, who operates lone wolf style outside the wire.

The classified (and pat) crisis du jour is terrorist and rebel factions vying to get their hands on some nukes. The twist is that Leo’s an android. No, it’s not like finding out late that “Ash is a goddamn robot” in “Alien” (1979); it’s an early giveaway. Under his uniform Leo has the glowing blue internals that Alicia Vikander’s demurring AI had in Alex Garland’s sharp contemplation on creator and creation, “Ex Machina” (2015). Like Vikander’s android, Leo’s got a few computations going on beyond what his human handlers have given him, and on-the-job training for Harp at times calls to mind the good-cop, bad-cop hazing Denzel Washington laid down on Ethan Hawke in “Training Day” (2001).

The fun of “Outside the Wire” isn’t so much the narrative arc but the navigation of chaos – robotic, rebels and otherwise – by Harp and Leo. Leo’s physically gifted beyond human, a “Six Million Dollar Man” lite, but the film doesn’t ride that rail; he’s designed to appear human in all aspects (and feels pain). Some of the more interesting thinking points raised are Leo asking Harp why the Marines made him look as he does and not a blonde, blue-eyed QB (Do you dream of an electronic Tom Brady?), and in the occasionally abusive treatment of Gumps by their human military counterparts. Neither gets explored in any depth, but they are cause for provocative pause. The production values of “Outside the Wire” impress in scope and quality, and the combat scenes are well choreographed and orchestrated by director Mikael Håfström. In the end, the film succeeds on Mackie’s stoic magnetism and Harp’s wide-eyed vulnerability. Like the equally serviceable Netflix thriller “Extraction” (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth, “Wire” would be pure pap without its top-notch cast.

Top 10 Films of 2020

30 Dec
  1. The Painted Bird
  2. Emma.
  3. Gunda
  4. Another Round
  5. First Cow
  6. The Assistant
  7. City Hall
  8. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  9. Sound of Metal
  10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Close Runners: Nomadland, Mank, Desert One, Beanpole, Aviva, News of the World, Kajillioare, Dick Johnson is Dead, Ham on Rye

News of the World

27 Dec

‘News of the World’: Tom Hanks returns, bringing his decency to a frontier mission

By Tom MeekFriday, December 25, 2020

“News of the World” re-teams Tom Hanks (“Greyhound,” “Big”) and director Paul Greengrass (“United 93” and the Jason Bourne films) after their 2013, real-life Somali pirate ordeal, “Captain Phillips.” That was a serviceable enough film. Here, in this Reconstruction-era Western, the production values and sense of place – a lawless frontier peppered with amorality and humanity – go far. Based on Paulette Jiles’s bestselling novel, Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a gentlemanly Confederate veteran who drifts through Texas reading news stories with dramatic flair to townsfolk who gather in a church, barn or paddock and pay 10 cents for his heightened oration. They’re true stories, mind you, right from print; you can think of the wandering tour as something akin to newsreel footage shown in theaters during the two great wars before there was TV.

At one juncture between towns, Kidd comes across a lynched black man with a note affixed, “Texas Says No! This is White Man’s Country” – a stark reminder of where we’ve been and sadly still not too far from. Close by, Kidd finds a young German girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel), whom he quickly learns was taken in by the Kiowa tribe when her parents were killed, raised as one of their own and, as a result, speaks more Kiowa than German or English. A passing law party tasks Kidd with returning the girl to authorities in the next town (the Kiowa, we find out, have been eradicated through land grab policy), but when those accommodations prove unsound, Kidd takes on the responsibility of shepherding Johanna to her aunt and uncle.

Part of Hank’s cinematic appeal has always been the way his “decent fella” navigates a brutal land, and it’s put on full display here where, once outside a town’s main street, the law won’t come even if they hear you calling. Johanna proves to be a lot to handle in her own right, and many along the way want to cut Kidd down so they can abduct the girl and sell her on the flesh market; there’s also the fact she’s considered native, which parks her in the same subhuman caste as a black person in the eyes of many.

To its advantage, “News of the World” isn’t so much about the plumbing of division and hate – it’s right there in nearly every frame – but the slow-budding bond between Kidd and Johanna in light of it. Hanks holds it all together with his soulful eyes, channeling the conflicted righteous goodness of Jimmy Stewart: You get a good idea who the man is behind them and what he’ll do when the chips are down. The film’s big revelation is Zengel, who demonstrates broad emotional range and nuance in a role in which a language barrier and fits of tween angst are part of the package. She handles both with aplomb.Of course, none of this happens without the sets and setting, pulled off with authenticity. To Greengrass’ credit as director and co-writer, the shootouts and trail conflicts are awkward, sudden things that often go down in unexpected and sloppy ways. It’s the kind of raw, revisionist stamp that separated Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992), Kevin Costner’s “Open Range” (2003) and most of Sam Peckinpah’s Western classics from the morally right black-and-white Hollywood studio staples. In that gray area where good doesn’t always prevail and the fastest gun doesn’t always win, there’s truth.

Wonder Woman 1984

27 Dec

‘Wonder Woman 1984’: Great hero, weak villains in this long-awaited sequel that feels all too 2020

By Tom MeekThursday, December 24, 2020

Patty Jenkins’ highly anticipated and massively delayed (thanks, Covid) follow-up to her 2017 “Wonder Woman” origin story is something of a letdown – less lithe, less focused and somewhat gummy. Over in the Marvel Universe, which seems to do these things more adroitly, Wonder Woman’s male counterpart, Captain America, kicked off kinda rangy with “The First Avenger” (2011), too square-jawed, self righteous and neatly pat, but gained footing through trial and grit when pushed in “Winter Soldier” (2014) and “Civil War” (2016, so ironic, it being Trump’s election year). That’s not the case here. The DC Universe as a matter of operating procedure guns for over-the-top when less is more. Just see “Aquaman,” (2018) “Justice League,” (2017) or “Batman v Superman” (2016) for illumination.

This “Wonder Woman 1984” checks in at a wondrous two and a half hours plus, and it doesn’t truly feel that long until it rounds the final bend … for the third and fourth time. We catch up with doe-eyed Amazonian goddess Diana (Gal Gadot) doing time as an archeologist with a nerdy coworker named Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig, of SNL and “Bridesmaids”) at the Smithsonian; in gold tiara and red, white and blue attire, she takes down random creeps here and there. Now that it’s 1984 (hello George Orwell) her beloved mortal mate, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), has passed, but when as Wonder Woman she thwarts a jewelry store heist, the recovered loot includes an antiquity known as the Dreamstone that will grant the possessor their wish. Diana’s brings a cost: Her super powers ebb, and when Barbara gets chance at the stone, she wishes to be like Diana.

Where things go from there is a ramshackle meander including something of a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” takedown of a military caravan, a #MeToo kick in which Diana and an enhanced Barbara give the same lech his due, and then there’s Maxwell Lord (“Game of Thrones” standout Pedro Pascal, who actually played in a 2011 “Wonder Woman” TV film that no one saw) as a TV personality and something of a Washington manipulator who gets his hands on the stone and becomes the arch villain. He’s something like Lex Luther fused with Donald Trump, with a small, caring Grinch heart awaiting the right stimulus. The more thrilling offset is Barbara, who morphs into the Cheetah and has more power than Diana. While this makes for a great super clash with cool FX and explosions, when Wiig shows up as the lowliest of all the apex predators on the Serengeti, she looks like something that escaped from the 2019 “Cats” debacle – and it’s hard to get over it. Also, Jenkins chose to shoot these scenes tight on faces, as if each actor was in their own separate green screen set. It lacks choreography and cohesion, which saps the action of energy.

Gadot, worthy of the role, stays in character and above the foibles, projecting compassion and magnanimity while still a goddess warrior. The disappointment here is Wiig. You’ve read about the two actresses bonding and making fun, entertaining YouTube comedy bits promoting the film, and we all know of SNL cast members’ comedic skill. But after an hour in, that’s all dried up, and Wiig is relegated to a two-dimensional shell of the geek who could be a god for a day. Chris Pine, like Gadot, holds tight. The two have solid chemistry, though I wished they let him wear something other than a stretched-out T-shirt that looks like the target of a fabric conditioner ad (you know that clueless, stretched-out, sagging neck guy on a date –  who wears a T-shirt to a sit-down meal out, anyhow?). They’re the reason to see “Wonder Woman 1984.” (Maybe that “Cats” spectacle, too.) Given all the release delays, it’s fitting that the film landed in 2020: We all know 2021 has to be better. There’s a lot to shut the door on, and this can be added to the list. There film does pack one final treat. I won’t say more, but do stay past the credits.

Greenland

21 Dec

‘Greenland’: A comet is about to destroy Earth, though calling this a disaster film is too easy

By Tom MeekThursday, December 17, 2020

Meteors crashing into our blue planet and triggering cataclysmic extinctions is nothing new. I mean, look what happened to T-Rex & Co.; some may remember the Comet Hale-Bopp and Larry Niven’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” and 1998’s certain-doom disaster flicks “Deep Impact” directed by Mimi Leder and the jacked-up “Armageddon” from Michael Bay. Now to a streaming platform near you comes “Greenland,” starring Gerard Butler, who for all his manly promise in “300” (2006) never saw his star take off; he got just a few middling rom-coms and the “Fallen” (London, Olympus, Angel) series. Here Butler, shaggier and paunchier than his King Leonidas, plays John Garrity, a structural engineer going about his life – a family man hosting a barbecue with friends at his trés suburban home in Atlanta when news of a comet named Clarke (hello, Arthur C.) streaking toward earth casts a pall upon the party.

What does one do when you learn that annihilation is certain in the next 48 hours? Put more shrimp on the barbie, open that vintage bottle of wine you’ve been storing for a special occasion in the cellar, call your loved ones or panic like lemmings? The answer in this B-tier production by Ric Roman Waugh, who worked with Butler on “Angel has Fallen” (2019), is (d), but then John and his family get a golden Willy Wonka invite to a sanctuary offering life after the collision. Just what that is, initially, is unclear, but the offer from the president himself is splashed across his TV screen like an Amber Alert and his guests, already in a glum state, turn jealous and desperate:  “Take me, take my kid,” and so on. “Greenland” isn’t so much about the next phase of humanity beyond the crash, but about trying to get to the safe place before it happens. As you can guess, that safe haven is a series of bunkers in the country of the title. Getting there as leading fragments from Clarke start to take out whole countries and civilization crumbles becomes the gantlet John and his family must run.

Nothing that happens in “Greenland” is all that surprising, including the poor and shrewdly opportunist ways people react under pressure. The shining moments of humanity and decency are enacted mostly by Butler’s everyman, John. “Greenland” is amazingly spry for its large scope,  mostly because Waugh keeps the lens tight on John and his wife (Morena Baccarin, from the TV series “V”) and son (Roger Dale Floyd). It’s not your typical Bay or Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow”) kind of disaster film, but something more cerebral, like “The Trigger Effect” (1996) if tamped down and made into mainstream pap. Given where we are, does something such as “Greenland” or “The Midnight Sky” really serve to distract, or does it remind us that we’re all hunkered down in our own little bunkers, riding out the storm?

Let Them All Talk

13 Dec

‘Let Them All Talk’: A supposedly fun thing that’ll keep you diverted until the unpacking

By Tom MeekThursday, December 10, 2020

I’ve never been on a cruise ship. I’ve marveled at the behemoths sailing into the Black Falcon Terminal in the Seaport, I’ve drunk in many moments of deck-perched merriment on friends’ social media posts, read David Foster Wallace’s semi-famous essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and enjoyed those peculiar and perplexing murder mysteries at sea that crop up on true crime investigative shows now and then – but I have yet to be part of a floating colony. In my heart, I feel I mostly align with Mr. Wallace, remaining tepidly cruise curious. Thanks to “Let Them All Talk,” the latest from Steven Soderbergh, cinema’s official auteur of quirky cool, my wan curiosity has received a reinvigorating shot.

Soderbergh, the man who made the “Ocean’s Eleven” films as well as such experimental fare as “Unsane” (2018) and “Bubble” (2005), slides toward more the latter here. He gets Meryl Streep aboard the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner en route to London as Alice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who can’t fly – Alice is a solemn sort, set in her ways, and won’t take the cruise unless her publishers give her top accommodations. Her besties from college, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), get to tag along, as well as her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges, who in “French Exit” opening later this year, again crosses the Atlantic; it’s by different means but with an equally complicated and mature woman of stature). The film, an improvisational bit formed from a short story by writer Deborah Eisenberg, has its moments: Roberta refuses to do any one-on-one time with Alice; there’s a strange man coming out of Alice’s cabin each morning; and adding to the mix is Karen (Gemma Chan, who provided a graceful, stately presence in the otherwise riotous rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians”), who’s from the publishing house and wants to educe another prize winner from Alice. Overall it’s choppy seas, though, lacking earnest, emotional cohesion. Sure, there’s a lot of suppressed emotion seeping through strong performances, but the material and devices never quite seem to warrant the requisite outpouring. It feels like a Robert Altman movie without a maestro of mass mania to wave the baton

Though everything is tied together with twists and revelations, back on firm ground one might wonder if the journey was worth the trip. From what’s onscreen you can imagine Soderbergh and his cast had a rollicking good time making the film, and the boat they chose was not a floating family theme park, but one with stately dining rooms and libraries with dark wood carousels overlooking scenic vistas of the ocean. That’s my cruise. Will I ever take it?

Another Round

7 Dec

‘Another Round’: Four stifled schoolteachers plunge into alcohol as a lifestyle, sink or swim

By Tom Meek
Thursday, December 3, 2020

Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” is a dark contemplation flipping between the glorification and pitfalls of routine alcohol consumption. The film begins with teens partaking in a keg relay race around a lake and, later, in their buzzed post-race state, making something of a nuisance of themselves on the subway. The matter is subsequently taken up by the faculty at the intimate Danish academy they attend. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), one of those teachers, listens intently, as he has teenagers at home as well. But one night, out for dinner and drinks with three fellow faculty to celebrate a 40th birthday, , there’s a moment of pause over Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderund’s obscure hypothesis that humans need booze to thrive. Intoxicated by the idea, the four make a pact to nip at school to see how Skårderund’s suggestion changes their lives, amended by the caveat that, like Hemingway, there will be no late-night boozing or weekend benders. As a result, Martin becomes increasingly distant from his family, especially his wife (Maria Bonnevie) who works at night; but in the classroom, his lack of inhibition allows him to break out and connect with youthful charges who revel in raucous history lessons focusing on notorious suds-sucking world leaders such as Winston Churchill and FDR taking on a, he notes, a teetotaling Adolf Hitler.

As you can guess, there’s a buoyant swell of wins before some major downs. One of the four gets so knackered he wets the bed and blames it on his 2-year-old, let alone not being able to find his legs to get off the floor and to go to school. In another scene, another of the four give emboldening nips of vodka to a nervous student on the verge of failing an oral exam. Vinterberg, who teamed up with Mikkelsen for “The Hunt” in 2012 – something akin to a Danish “Straw Dogs” (1974) – keeps much of the judgment off frame. Mikkelsen, whom most Americans probably know for his go as a Bond villain in “Casino Royale” (2006) or Hannibal Lecter in the underappreciated TV series “Hannibal,” gives his best performance to date, awards-worthy in Danish or English. Many might not know that Mikkelsen was a dancer by trade early on, and the skill is put to glorious use in the final scene, a surprise in its own right considering the nadir it springs from. The final 10 minutes of the film are unforgettable, uncannily ebullient and hauntingly disturbing.

Mank

7 Dec

‘Mank’: Drunken Hollywood hired gun careens into shooting a classic, and Fincher follows him

By Tom Meek
Friday, December 4, 2020

There’s a scene in Thomas Vinterberg’s recently released “Another Round” in which Mads Mikkelsen’s teacher asks his students what kind of person they’d want to hang out with: a vodka-swilling, late-night carouser, a closet beer-nipping infirm or a hyper-serious teetotaler. The class for the most goes for door No. 1 – Winston Churchill. FDR is the second, who receives some love. The one who receives no votes, and a raucous cheer of relief when his identity is revealed, is no other than Adolf Hitler. The infamous icon of tyranny and extreme racism curiously also makes an indelible mark in “Mank,” the latest from visual stylist David Fincher, in a conversation between Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, the Mank in question), studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, playing that final M in MGM) and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, who worked with Fincher on his first film, “Alien3”). Talking about renowned socialist and writer Upton Sinclair running for governor of California in 1934, Hearst dismisses the “Oil!” author (the basis for the Paul Thomas Anderson film “There Will Be Blood”)  as a person not to be taken seriously – like Hitler. Sinclair loses a close race, and we all know the evils Hitler went on to enact.

The scene is important because it casts a strong contrast between the washed-up writer Mank, a journo turned Hollywood hired gun, and the powerful Hearst, who would become the alleged subject of Mank’s pen for Orson Welles’ iconic American classic, “Citizen Kane.” In 1942, the revered film would win an Oscar only for best screenplay (John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” beat it for best pic). Mankiewicz and Welles shared the co-credit, and over time there have been debates over just how much either man contributed to the then 24-year-old Welles’ directorial debut. Fincher’s take, coming from a script by his late father Jay (he passed in 2003, and this is his only credit), makes no quibbles that it’s nearly all Mank. But the film’s less about the penning of the instant classic and more about the sands of power in Hollywood – a quagmire that ensnares, more than Mank, kid brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey), who would go on to direct “All About Eve” (1950) and “Sleuth” (1972). Mank’s got one foot in and one foot out, and a broken leg from a car crash and a penchant for the sauce throughout as he navigates the studio lot that Mayer runs like an episode of Trump’s “Apprentice.” There’s so much wrapped up in Welles’ promising debut that the affable John Houseman (Sam Troughton) is brought in to keep him sober and focused. Then there’s also the women who play muse to Mank, including Hollywood it girl of the time Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the nurse who helps mend him back to health (Monika Gossmann) and overly patient wife (Tuppence Middleton).

It’s hard to believe that Fincher, who used to make a living shooting Loverboy and Madonna videos, has made only 11 films to date, with “Fight Club” (1999) and “The Social Network” (2010) as well as the underappreciated TV series “Mindhunter” as some of the shinier jewels. It’s been six years since his last, “Gone Girl”; this is an obvious labor of love, an ode to his father and the (for better or worse) heyday of big studio Hollywood. It’s shot in opulent black and white by Erik Messerschmidt, which feels like an apt choice and is accompanied by a period appropriate score with a bit of a haunting modern edge by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have teamed with Fincher on numerous occasions and won for “The Social Network.” The real key to the success of “Mank,” however, is Oldman, who won an Oscar for his performance as British boozer Winton Churchill in “The Darkest Hour” (2017). He’s an actor who can slide seamlessly into any genre and any role and make it his own, as well as disappear into the character – he does it again here and should almost certainly be in the conversations about the finest thespian turns of 2020. Howard as Mayer is a force in his own right and a perfect grinding board for the boozy Mank. Fincher, Oldman and Howard, et al., embrace and relish the golden era, but not without shining lights into the dark corners of filmmaking power and the politics of the time.

Happiest Season

1 Dec

‘Happiest Season’: Coming-out dramedy wrapped in a festive Christmastime bow

By Tom Meek
Thursday, November 26, 2020

Clea DuVall, the actor best known for her roles in the TV series “Veep” and “The Faculty” (1998), targets holiday tradition and family structures in “Happiest Season,” her sophomore directorial effort. The setup has Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) heading to Harper’s very conservative parents’ house for Christmas. There’s much promise for a joyous sojourn: Abby’s got a diamond ring in her pocket at the ready for a marriage proposal at the right time, and she’ll be meeting her in-laws to be. But en route, it’s revealed Harper’s not out to her fam, and Abby’s tagged just as her roommate.

You can see where this is going a mile out, and while the two leads spark a solid chemistry, it’s Mary Steenburgen as Harper’s controlling mom Tipper (as in Gore, when she wanted to censor music?) and Aubrey Plaza, so good in “Black Bear” (2020) and “Ingrid Goes West” (2017) as Harper’s ex, Riley, who light up the screen. DuVall, who cowrote the script, adds a bevy of side threads that turn the family’s cozy manse into a maze of repression and skeletons in closet. Harper’s politician father, Ted (Victor Garber), is running for mayor of Pittsburgh (an apt setting, considering the state’s pivotal role in the recent election), and an upright appearance is demanded at all turns; and there’s something very off about the marriage of Harper’s hostile sister, Sloane (Alison Brie). Mostly the parents stand by and watch the dysfunction unfurl, until Abby’s gay male confidant (Dan Levy), sensitive to her position, drops in and poses as Abby’s hetero beau – like a “Queer Eye” cast member trying to go all Schwarzenegger. 

As sure as there’s milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, reckonings, reveals and epiphanies get unwrapped. DuVall and her talented ensemble pull it all off nicely, though the fine balance between drama and comedy gets a bit wobbly and inconsistent. The scenes between Stewart’s Abby and Plaza’s ex are the most heartfelt, emotional and genuine. Stewart, who held up the slack thriller “Underwater” this year and navigated similar territory in “Lizzie” (2018) gets her opportunities to shine, though the film feels like it should be Davis’ for the taking. The tall angular actress, imposing in the TV series “Halt and Catch Fire” and as the can-do cybernetic in “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019), gets somewhat lost in the shuffle – a hub for all the frayed anxiety to flow thorough for so long that she never truly gets her own moment. Still, “Happiest Season” delivers all the holiday madness in entertaining form with a few different sides and trimmings to make the rewrap feel fittingly anew.