Movie reviews: The Croods, Christmas Chronicles 2, Collective, Zappa

What’s On November 27

A modern stone age family returns, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn re-gift, a sports journalist pummels political corruption, and Alex Winter offers a little green rosetta stone for Frank Zappa

The Croods: A New Age


Starring: Emma Stone, Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Man, Clark Duke,

Directed by: Joel Crawford

Running time: 1 hr 25 mins

Rating: Parental Guidance

* Slated for theatrical release Nov. 27, COVID-19 restrictions pending

Christmas Chronicles 2


Starring: Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Darby Camp, Julian Dennison, Darlene Love, and Jahzir Bruno

Directed by: Chris Columbus

Running time: 1 hr 52 mins

Rating: Parental Guidance




Starring: Catalin Tolontan, Razvan Lutac, Mirela Neag

Directed by: Alexander Nanau

Running time: 1 hr 49 mins

Rating: Not yet rated




Starring: Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barnes

Directed by: Alex Winter

Running time: 2 hrs 9 mins

Rating: Not yet rated

By Katherine Monk

The Croods: A New Age (Select Theatrical*): Toy Story is a quarter century behind us. And the world of animation has been transformed from two-dimensional pen and ink fables tailored for kid folk into three-dimensional spectacles designed as slick grown-up entertainments. You could see it as further proof of our continuing cultural regression, moving back to childish entertainments and primary coloured big picture views without subtlety. Or, you could see our infatuation with computer-generated animation as an emotional bridge — pulling generations together through a magical medium that can be both immature and sophisticated in the same breath. And if I were looking for proof of my postulation, I would point my highly evolved index digit at The Croods, a surprise smash from 2013 that featured a family of cave dwellers finding the light — literally — as they saw sunlight and faced a changing environment. The Croods played with generational tensions by playing it out against a prehistoric backdrop defined by the need for immediate survival. When Dad, Grug Crood (Nicolas Cage) said we have to move, it was because the earth was disappearing beneath their feet. And so wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), daughter Eep (Emma Stone) and son Thunk (Clark Duke) followed Grug’s directions and stuck together as a family unit — creating the gooey molten core of the movie’s all-ages message. Yet, there is no rest for the Croods. Retreating glaciers, human evolution and teenage children are presenting new challenges for the clan — ushering in this sequel, A New Age. A little more frenetic and colourful than the first film, A New Age is also a little emptier than the first — trading sight gags and 21st century marketing winks for emotional heft — but it’s still a grand example of how the pixel pixies can bring a family together. To be specific, this adventure centres on the maturation of Eep, who finds a cute boy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in the wild, and decides he’s far too compelling to ignore. Guy becomes part of Grug’s snugfest, making everyone in the Crood gang brood, threatening the group’s very survival. But no sooner do they stumble into this new problem than they tumble into a magical wonderland behind a great big wall. Seems some other humanoids have skipped a few stages of evolution and developed higher tools and engineering. Meet the Bettermans — Phil (Peter Dinklage), Hope (Leslie Mann), and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) — the Stone Age equivalent of the Kardashians. Fixated on their perfect home, the social optics of their new friends and keeping their man buns tight, the Bettermans are the obnoxious snobs who look down on the Croods, making them feel inferior — and downright Neanderthal. You can imagine the manly chest-thumping as Grug tries to keep his family together while the Bettermans feel increasingly threatened by their uncouth guests. Thanks to some smart writing from Kevin and Dan Hageman (The Lego Movie), the evolutionary storyline becomes a rhetorical question — are we really getting smarter if we’re destroying the planet with our fabulous inventions? Coupled with the performance value of this A-list cast, now enhanced by the suede sonics and dry delivery of Ryan Reynolds, The Croods: A New Age may feel like it’s all over the place — most of the time — and it is. It’s also irritatingly traditional, reaffirming patriarchal power structures and gender roles. And yet, because they feel as exaggerated as an early hominid’s brow ridge, they become obvious symbols of just how un-evolved we actually are — no matter how New Age we may be.

Christmas Chronicles 2: Chris Columbus restores order to the North Pole, inserting Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn as a couple red-clad of Clauses.

Christmas Chronicles 2 (new on Netflix) – Okay. Might as well surrender to the seasonal programming: Let yourself be buoyed by the jolly red tsunami and get into the spirit of the holidays by sitting absolutely still on the sofa for hours on end. There’s a lot out there at the moment, from the truly offensive Mel Gibson Santa movie, Fatman, to the never-ending catalogue of Hallmark seasonal releases designed to reach each and every demographic. But if you’re seeking something safe, something truly Yule-y, something that conjures the classics of yesteryear and sweet clumps of Plasticine singing Noel songs, check out this sequel to the Christmas Chronicles. Interestingly, I didn’t see the original that came out two years ago. Or, if I did, it didn’t really register. But that only made this sequel feel that much fresher as I watched Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn play Mr. and Mrs Claus in a movie written and directed by Chris Columbus — the guy behind the Harry Potter movies and, well, the Goonies. The point is, Columbus knows how to take a pretty standard story of kids and Santa Claus and find just enough movie magic to make it feel special. To recap, this is a story of ‘true believers’ — the kids who believe in Santa and his special X-mas powers. Kate (Darby Camp) is one such believer, and in the first movie, she visited the North Pole. This time around, she’s on holiday in Mexico with her mom and her new boyfriend, Bob (Tyrese Gibson), and his son Jack (Jahzir Bruno). Kate is being a brat, and decides to run away, only to be kidnapped by a bad elf named Belsnickel — who wants to invade Santa’s workshop, turn the elves into maniacal foes, and destroy Christmas once and for all. It’s a frequent theme these days, and one that resonates in a world where goodness feels under constant threat. Yet, by the same token, watching Kurt Russell as a jolly old gift-giver feels surprisingly reassuring. The former Disney kid plays Kris Kringle with as much conviction as he did Snake Plissken, the hard-ass hero of Escape from L.A. And there is joy in that — just as there is joy in watching Russell and Hawn share the frame and trade blue-eyed winks, as well as a surprising tip of the toque to the ’90s. This time if year is filled with so much dreck, so much forced romance and saccharine stocking stuffing that it’s not easy finding something that won’t leave you needing a shot of mental insulin. Christmas Chronicles is unquestionably candy, but it won’t leave you too queasy (if you turn down the sound during the action sequences.) Not only that, when Santa declares order has officially been restored to the North Pole, Christmas Chronicles 2 not only feels oddly contemporary — it feels like the gift we all need right now.

Collective peels away layers of government corruption following Bucharest night club inferno

Collective (New to VOD) – Originally scheduled for a theatrical release this week, Collective is Romania’s submission to this year’s Oscars, and is already one of the most decorated documentaries of the year as it peels back the layers of a national scandal that left permanent scars on the Romanian psyche. In 2015, a nightclub called Collective caught fire in the middle of a live concert. The venue ignited in seconds, causing a stampede, and the deaths of 64 people. Twenty six of the victims were killed on site. The remaining deaths happened in the hospital, where it was discovered the burn unit was unsanitary — cleaned with overly diluted cleaning supplies, leading to mass infections and death. A group of journalists from the local sports paper were the ones who started asking questions, analyzed the cleaning fluids, and printed the results of their findings. Then everything kind of goes crazy as government apparatchiks, other journalists and hospital employees start swapping accusations and cries of a cover-up. From fishy suicides to unfathomable corruption among hospital administrators, Collective just keeps spiraling out of control— and as a viewer, you keep wondering, are these journalists safe? The story gets so disturbing, everything becomes contaminated with a certain paranoia. Why are they still alive, when so many around them are suddenly falling from windows? We realize it’s the constant turning of the cameras, the mechanical eyes recording every new development without blinking, that offer the protection of the unflinching witness. But this tragic testimony, and the endless suffering, means little if we don’t actually do the hard thing — and watch what so many risked their lives to film.


New Zappa documentary is a Frank portrait that mines family archive for mother lode of invention

Zappa (New to VOD) – Back in 2016 I saw a movie about Frank Zappa that completely changed the way I viewed the bearded troubadour. Thorsten Schutte’s Eat that Question was a standout documentary that used rare archival footage of Zappa that Schutte had found in broadcast archives throughout Europe. And Europe really got Zappa. And Zappa, who wasn’t shy about criticizing the emptiness of his own culture, really enjoyed talking to non-American media. The result was a highly sophisticated and talky portrait of a man who saw himself as a composer, not a rock star. Schutte’s portrait was for people who wanted to understand the oeuvre. Which, let’s face it, was undeniably brilliant — whether you actually enjoyed listening to it or not. This new documentary from Alex Winter (of Bill and Ted) is for people who want to understand Zappa, the family man, the rock star, the absent husband and the relentless creator. Also crafted from archival footage, Winter’s film mines Zappa’s own library for content. It’s also dedicated to Gail, Zappa’s wife, who passed away in 2015. So, what do we get out of this new Zappa? The same profound portrait of a musical pioneer trapped in a financial art trap, but also a note of self-awareness on the personal front. He talks about ‘strapping girls on’ when he’s on tour and going home with the clap. Gail’s place as the family cornerstone emerges slowly, by default, as we learn more about Frank’s de facto negligence. He’s the inspired artist, following his many muses — and largely ignoring his own family until he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness. This last act of Zappa’s is the redemption song, and where Winter places the maximum emphasis — a defiant raised fist against the nihilism that inhabited the man in life, but was finally vanquished as he approached death. Or, as he articulates it to his orchestra in the final frames: You’ve only got one note to play, but you’re going to play the fucking hell out of it.


To read more of Katherine’s reviews, check out The Ex-Press archive, or sample the whole catalogue at Rotten Tomatoes.

THE EX-PRESS, November 27, 2020


Review: The Croods, Christmas Chronicles 2, Collective, Zappa

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A modern stone age family returns, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn re-gift, a sports journalist pummels political corruption, and Alex Winter offers a little green rosetta stone for Frank Zappa. Movie reviews of The Croods: A New Age, Christmas Chronicles 2, Collective documentary and Zappa. -- Katherine Monk

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