All the Extra-Sweet Holiday Decorations Can’t Disguise the Fact That ‘Last Christmas’ is Really About Doing the Work to Take Care of Ourselves

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CREDIT: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Peter Mygind

Director: Paul Feig

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Young Adults Getting Themselves Into Hot Mess Situations

Release Date: November 8, 2019

If you’re the type who likes to speculate before going to see a movie, then you may have surmised that a twist is afoot in Last Christmas. And it’s probably pretty close to (if not exactly) the twist you think it is, especially if you’ve noticed that in the trailer, nobody interacts with Henry Golding’s Tom besides Emilia Clarke’s Kate and if you’ve remembered the lyrics to the Wham! song that serves as this film’s namesake and inspired the plot. It’s not as if Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings’ script or Paul Feig’s direction is trying too hard to hide the reveal, as early scenes feature Tom using goofy evasive maneuvers (that nobody but Kate seems to notice) to avoid bumping into passing pedestrians. The success of Last Christmas does not hinge on the twist, thankfully, though I do wonder what it would have been like if it had showed its more hand earlier. The choice to keep things under wraps does make sense considering the story’s perspective, at least, and either way, the message about finding the inner strength to re-discover our best selves shines through.

The other big hook of Last Christmas is that Kate is in long-term recovery mode following a health scare a year earlier that necessitated a heart transplant. Physically, she seems to be doing just fine now, but mentally it’s another story. She appears to be suffering from undiagnosed depression, which is leading to a pattern of poor decisions: hooking up with a series of one-night stands, causing general destruction while couch surfing at her friends’ apartments, neglecting to lock up for the night while leaving work. Her current inability to fulfill the personality requirements of her job as a department store elf (under the employ of a shop owner who calls herself “Santa,” no less) could not be starker. Meanwhile, she’s also got plenty of stress emanating from her family, thanks to an overbearing mother (Thompson) who won’t stop calling her, a sister (Lydia Leonard) keeping her sexuality a secret from their parents, a father (Boris Isakovic) who systematically avoids conflict, and the long-term trauma of having grown up in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.

Thus, with everything so heavy in Kate’s life, I didn’t bat an eye at Tom’s saintly perfection, as this was exactly what she needed, and while skepticism can be healthy, it’s foolish to complain about something definitively good. He may suddenly show up without warning, but he knows exactly what to say to get Kate feeling like herself again. On top of that, he somehow manages to get by in this modern digitized world without carrying his phone around all the time and he (what else?) volunteers at a homeless shelter. His only shortcoming is that he has a habit of disappearing for days on end, only returning by some unpredictable whim. When he’s present, he provides the sort of emotional support that is essential for Kate right now and that we all require to get by as human beings. When he’s gone, it’s a test for her to learn that maybe she has that support within herself to get by on her own.

Last Christmas ends with Kate,, the full picture of health and 100% in the Christmas mood, putting on a little show in support of the homeless shelter. All her loved ones new and old are there to support her, and if that sounds a little too perfect, well, it probably is. We have at least seen Kate get to this point of fulfillment, so her triumph isn’t frustrating. But we haven’t quite spent the same time with her family to know that they’ve also been able to work through all their burdens. Maybe, though, we can assume that they too have had their own mysterious visitors who have helped them along, and then we can go on and sing some happy carols.

Last Christmas is Recommended If You Like: George Michael music, Some sort of combination of Love Actually, Fleabag, and BoJack Horseman

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Comical Eastern European Accents

This Is a Movie Review: ‘A Simple Favor’ Might Just Be the Most Delightful Missing Girl Movie Ever

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CREDIT: Peter Iovino/Lionsgate

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla, Kelly McCormack

Director: Paul Feig

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Aggressive Nude Paintings, Plenty of Oopsie Words, a Few Gunshots, and a Little Bit of Skinny Dipping

Release Date: September 14, 2018

What if the most super-prepared overachieving mom started hanging out with the scariest, most workaholic mom who never shows up to any classroom activities? As Andrew Rannells, the ringleader of A Simple Favor‘s Greek chorus of catty parents puts it, she’s going to eat her alive. But in fact prudish mommy blogger Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) and altogether aggressive fashion P.R. exec Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) become fast friends. They may be the oddest of odd couples, but their chemistry is sparkling and intense. Emily carelessly swears (quite hilariously) in front of her young son and swills afternoon martinis, which is miles beyond any life Stephanie has ever lived. But her unapologetic nature is intoxicating, and Stephanie is happy to latch onto the rare opportunity of discovering true friendship in adulthood.

Stephanie and Emily drinking away the afternoons could be an excellent formula for a twisted sitcom. But Emily, naturally enough, has her secrets, and this story is about her disappearance, and Stephanie grappling with how there is so much she doesn’t know about her friend and how she was always profoundly mysterious for as long as she’s known her. The black comedy of the first half gradually fades away, with Stephanie’s amateur sleuthing signaling a turn into high camp as she starts uncovering some key information.

It all culminates in Stephanie, Emily, and Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) overdramatically play-acting the roles in the ridiculously over-the-top tale of intrigue that they are actually living. The switch between tones is such a hard swerve and a little disorienting. But I am willing to forgive that and call A Simple Favor a rousing success because Kendrick, Lively, and director Paul Feig are so adept at handling both tones, and because there are some genuine lessons about how to be a good, attentive parent in there. That level of grounding is what makes a domestic fantasy like this endure.

A Simple Favor is Recommended If You Like: Gone Girl, Mommy blogs and vlogs, Making fun of mommy blogs and vlogs, Yé-yé music

Grade: 4 out of 5 Real Martinis