Friday, 14 December 2018

Yule Love It: Christmas Encore (2017)

Another Christmas movie from the experienced hands of director Bradley Walsh, and writers Mark Amatos and Jennifer Notas Shapiro, Christmas Encore pitches itself as a perfect example of this kind of thing. You wouldn't really give it any thought at any other time of year, but it's a colourful and frothy 90 minutes for the holiday season.

Maggie Lawson plays Charlotte Lacy, a struggling actress who is just about to resign herself to giving up on her dream and moving on with her life. Her one last chance comes along in the shape of an audition for a stage version of A Christmas Carol, directed by a TV star named Julian Walker (Brennan Elliott). The play gives her a chance to shine, as she takes the lead role in a reworked version of the classic tale, but will it be enough? And will she be able to forget the past that she once had with Julian, someone she views as having thrown her aside when his shot at fame came calling.

As usual, there's plenty that you can choose to hate on with this type of thing. The lead character is almost sickeningly sweet and good, there are moments that teach lessons to someone with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, and there seems to be a world that writers think exists in which people who are struggling to get on with their lives can still afford pretty great living conditions, always look well-groomed and chipper, and generally don't often suffer anywhere close to the realities of those on, or below, the breadline. I get it, this is a holiday film that isn't interested in actual reality (and why would it be? that isn't what people want as they often make themselves poor and stressed at this time of year) but it always stands out when it's supposed to inform the character. This is far from the worst offender, as Charlotte isn't ever shown to be crying over finances or worried about a roof over her head, but I guarantee that a lot of people working in the service industry will wonder how she has the time to also be involved in a play, especially at Christmas, and how she seems to generally maintains a smile on her face and spring in her step.

Amatos and Shapiro hit all of the right notes, giving the main characters enough of a backstory to provide a small amount of tension while the storyline focuses on a "if we put this show on then we might just save the theatre" premise that will please any fan of The Muppets. There are one or two spanners in the works en route to the expected ending, of course, and they ensure that the pace works well throughout.

Lawson is a bright lead, outshining the others, which isn't that hard. Walker does okay though, Art Hindle is the standard kindly elder figure, and Murray Furrow is the potential villain who doesn't seem to carry any seasonal goodwill in his soul.

Walsh directs everything capably enough, crafting yet another disposable schedule-filler that manages to be sweet and cheery without feeling as cheap and slapdash as some. It lands in the arena of the average, as so many of these films do, but that's perfectly fine, especially when you sit through the ones that don't manage to get to that level.

5/10

Here's that festive film collection again.
Here's a 4-pack that some Americans may enjoy.
Or just click a link and go shopping. That works for me too.


Thursday, 13 December 2018

Yule Love It: The Elf (2017)

There's a storyline hidden away at the centre of The Elf, the latest unsuccessful attempt to create a new Christmas horror movie (which, at the very least, avoids utilising the overused Krampus), but I'll be damned if I could tell you what it was. I was too busy imagining how much better my life would be if I spent 90 minutes smashing baubles into my face and jamming candy canes under my toenails. This was a painful experience. Not fun, not distractingly gory, and not concerned with anything that might actually draw you into the movie.

Written and directed by Justin Price, the story starts off with a young man who inherits a toy shop. But he dislikes Christmas, making him unlikely to be thrilled at the idea of a toy shop (surely). There's a lengthy sequence showing this young man (Nick, played by Gabriel Miller) and his girlfriend (Victoria, played by Natassia Halabi) rummaging around in the toy store, and then it's off to a household full of annoying people that are going to be spending Christmas with our nominal leads. The elf is also there, of course. A toy that just appears, despite Nick and Victoria explaining to one another that they did not move it from the shop. And then, before you can shout "a rum pa pum pum", the killing starts. And, from the very first scenes of murder, I was on the side of the elf.

It's hard to list every single thing wrong with this movie. Needless to say, carelessness and laziness and too many restraints all coagulate together to make one hell of a mess. This could have been a bit of silly fun, ultimately disposable but worth 90 minutes of your time when you have had just the right amount of eggnog, but Price seems to go out of his way to make it an endurance test. Scenes that could be tense are edited and paced so poorly that you stop caring within seconds, the script is so embarrassing at times that I had to wonder if anyone was shown it before they signed on, and the acting is so bad that I then had to wonder if anyone had actually auditioned before Price gave them script pages. Maybe Price was grateful to find anyone to read his atrocious lines out loud and maybe the cast members were just grateful to get some work.

There's one moment that made me smirk, I'll give it that. A ridiculous scene that has some pushy carol singers caught up in the middle of the mayhem. But that was the only scene. Every other moment in this movie was either painful to watch or painfully boring. And I will put a lot of the blame for that on Price, but also a fair portion of it on someone named Khu, who is credited as producer, editor, and cinematographer. Going by the end result here, Khu has about as much experience in those fields as I do.

If you're considering giving this one a watch then I would strongly advise against it. In fact, you'd have more fun soaking your face in brandy and then leaning over a flaming Christmas pudding, becoming one with the fire and singing holiday songs while the skin from your face sloughs off and sizzles on the top of a pudding that nobody else will now want any part of. Or, y'know, you could just not watch it.

2/10

There's only one Elf you need on your shelf.
Americans can overpay for it here.


Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Yule Love It: Christmas Time (2017)

AKA My Brother The Time Traveler.

Directed by Jake Van Wagoner. Written by Jake Van Wagoner and Maclain Nelson. Starring Jake Van Wagoner and Maclain Nelson, who play two brothers named . . . Jake and Maclain. The signs were all there, warning me to stay clear of this one, but I just didn't notice them from the very beginning.

A cute intro sequence covers the backstory that you need to know, for the most part. Jake and Maclain were very young when their parents died, and then Jake started to time travel, or so he told people when asked about his whereabouts (whenabouts?), which left Maclain alone and upset when he needed his brother most. Having not been in touch with one another for some time, Maclain's partner, Clare (played by Clare Niederpruem) decides that the brothers should be pushed into spending Christmas together at a fairly isolated cabin. Can they make up for those lost years, and will Jake insist that he can still travel through time?

The first thing that you notice about Christmas Time, once that fun intro sequence finishes, is that it's cheap. It feels cheap. Not necessarily the cheapest you will ever see, and the audio is of a decent quality (often the downfall of many a low-budget film), but you can definitely tell from the very beginning that this is a film made without a lot of money put into it. Necessity can be the mother of invention, especially when people are making movies, but this is one occasion when I think a bigger budget could have really helped, perhaps interspersing the main storyline with some flashbacks/hallucinations.

The second thing you notice about Christmas Time is that the leads are okay, but nothing more. I spent the whole film wishing that Jake was being played by Tyler Labine, for example, and Maclain could have been played by anyone able to do the uptight, exasperated, everyday Joe. Clare is surprisingly patient and sweet, and again could have been played by a number of other actresses. Nobody is awful, fortunately, but this premise could have been turned into something much more enjoyable with one or two more familiar faces onscreen. I have seen opinions from some people who liked seeing James Murray onscreen, he plays a therapist trying to help Maclain, but I am unaware of his past work and wasn't impressed by him in this.

The direction is also okay, suffering most from the script that everyone is working from. It's an unfocused work, never making the most of the comedy potential, the family drama, or the maybe/maybe not sci-fi element, and this leads viewers to an ending that is frustrating and a bit rushed when it could have been the satisfying end of an enjoyable journey.

So . . . you have a drama that often doesn't make you care about the characters, a comedy with to few laughs, and a possible sci-fi idea that isn't well-utilised, making the whole thing a disappointment, if not absolutely terrible.

4/10

I'm just going to keep recommending this Disney set.
Americans can buy it here.



Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Yule Love It: Shoelaces For Christmas (2018)

All of the pieces are in place here for a traditional slice of Christmas fare, and I'll start this review by admitting that I thought I had something in my eye during one or two moments of the third act of this. You've got a parent diagnosed with cancer, a homeless shelter with residents who may very well teach the lead character a thing or two about how to be less selfish, and a child who doesn't speak. Enough to melt even the coldest heart, surely.

Mia Topalian plays Jennifer Miller, who starts the movie as a typical teenage girl, happy to join in with her friends as they deride others and very self-centred. This doesn't immediately change when her father (Bailey Chase) and mother (Jessica Morris) break the news that her mother has cancer. Appalled by the lack of concern for anyone other than herself, Jennifer's father eventually lays out a plan for her. She will be helping out at a shelter for the homeless and generally working on becoming a more helpful individual, or she won't get that holiday trip to Paris with her friend that she has been looking forward to for so long. It's at the shelter where Jennifer meets the young Chloe (Summer Mitchell), who doesn't speak. The two start to bring out the best in one another, maybe just in time for a Christmas "miracle".

Director Craig Clyde keeps this a fairly bright and breezy seasonal film, thanks to the script, that he co-wrote with Bryce W. Fillmore, and decent enough cast (for this type of thing). The first third is fun, watching Jennifer be the kind of spoilt teen that needs the kind of lesson about to be taught to her, and the rest of the film works nicely through a number of tropes that viewers expect from this type of thing.

Topalian does a good job in the lead role. The script helps, keeping her sympathetic even while she's being a bit of a "mean girl", but she also has good presence, making her a great lead to follow through this familiar journey. Chase and Morris are fine as the parents, Mitchell plays her role with the appropriate big eyes making up for a lack of dialogue, and Paul Kiernan is fun as Vinegar Ben, someone who doesn't view Jennifer in a good light at all . . . until the two eventually warm to one another as Jennifer starts to move away from being so self-centred.

I've seen a couple of Christmas movies that I've enjoyed lately, which makes it time for the standard reminder that rating these as above average or good doesn't necessarily mean they should be viewed that way in comparison to non-holiday movies. This was a sweet TV movie that nicely mixed the sad with the uplifting, and I recommend it for this time of year.

6/10

Here's a great selection of Christmassy movies for the family to enjoy.
Americans can get it here.


Monday, 10 December 2018

Yule Love It: Krampus: The Reckoning (2015)

When I stumbled across Krampus: The Reckoning I have to say that I made a few assumptions. And those assumptions were all pretty spot on, as it turned out. It's a very low-budget film, it's not full of great acting, and it uses the idea of the Krampus to spin a tale that wouldn't be of interest to anyone other than people who have to torture themselves by watching anything that can provide a break from the monotony of the non-stop selection of Hallmark movies available during the Christmas holiday season.

Amelia Haberman plays a young girl named Zoe, taken into a care facility after her foster parents are killed. Her foster parents weren't very nice people, so Zoe isn't too upset by their deaths, but Dr. Rachel Stewart (played by Monica Engesser) soon realises that there may be something more to things, something that more directly involves Zoe and the little Krampus figure that she likes to keep in her possession.

Here's how I imagine this movie was developed.

Robert Conway (writer and director of the movie) had some beers and started to talk to his brother, Owen. I'm going to assume that Owen is his brother anyway, given the credits that he has in Robert's filmography.

RC: "You know what, everyone enjoys Christmas movies, and horror fans dig horror films set at Christmas. You can have lots of great moments and killer Santas."

OC: "That's true, you could maybe work on a film like that."

RC: "But everyone knows Santa. You know what everyone doesn't know about? The Krampus."

OC: "Rob, I am pretty sure everyone knows about Krampus nowadays. Back in the early '80s it was much lesser-known, sure, but now it's pretty common knowledge. The internet and all that, dude."

RC: "No, no, no, they think they know about it but they don't, like, KNOW about it. I could do a film that makes use of that figure, setting him as a vengeful spirit unleashed at times by a child. Yes."

OC: "Okayyyyyy, how are you going to show him in the movie though? Guy in a big suit? Some of the effects might be a bit pricey."

RC: "Hell no, we'll just use computer effects. Everyone uses computer effects nowadays. They can make anything look great."

OC: "If you spend enough. You can't get good results without spending a fair bit."

RC: "No, no, trust me, Owen, computer guys are out there, falling over one another to get jobs in the industry. We'll place an ad, go for the cheapest, but BEST, we can get. It will look awesome."

OC: "I'm not too sure about that."

RC: "Yes, it will look awesome. And we'll have a couple of scenes of gratuitous nudity. Folks love that. And a cop who drinks a bit too much and has his personal life going to shit. And there'll even be a big build up at the end to stuff that will blow everyone's minds."

OC: "Anything else? Like decent characters, a solid script, something new you can bring to the table to sell it to everyone?"

RC: "Not yet, but I'm sure it will come. You can help me flesh this baby out, and I'll even give you another acting role. What do you say, huh?"

OC: "Urgh, it sounds terrible, but you're still my most prolific employer so I say yes."

And the end results reflects all of that conversation. Bad acting, bad CGI, a terrible ending that Conway obviously thought worked great, and a general dearth of imagination throughout. There's a basic level of technical competence, I suppose, but nothing to help the film do more than scrape just above the very bottom of the barrel. At least it's not snooze-inducingly dull, which gets it another charitable point.

3/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Mubi Monday: Suspiria (1977)

It may seem paradoxical to say so but I've always thought that perfect films don't have to BE perfect. They just have to work perfectly for you. If you want to recommend Kangaroo Jack as your favourite film, and you genuinely see it as a perfect film for you, then it's a perfect film, despite the imperfections. I know that Jaws isn't a perfect movie (although, come on, it's nowhere near as imperfect as a Kangaroo Jack) but it is to me. It's my favourite film of all time, no matter how many scenes show how fake the big shark can look, or how the underwater footage rarely matches the supposed size of the "real" creature. It just doesn't matter. I am drawn into that film from the opening moments and I am absolutely wrapped up in the entire experience until the very end of the end credits.

That opening paragraph is a long-winded way to avoid upsetting people when I start saying that a lot of individual elements of Suspiria are far from perfect. The acting isn't great, even from the beloved leading lady (Jessica Harper), the script is a load of codswallop at times, and there's very little logic to be had for those who need such things. Not that any of that matters. Suspiria still manages to be a perfect film because it's a phenomenal marriage of sound and vision that contains at least two of the best set-pieces in the genre (one being the very opening sequence).

Here's the plot, for the little it matters. Harper plays Suzy Bannion, an American woman who turns up to attend a prestigious dance academy in Germany. She soon starts to realise that the place is a bit odd, and other girls start to disappear (due to them being killed by mysterious, unseen, forces).

Written by director Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, the script may not be all that memorable when it comes to the dialogue but it works well when hinting at the Three Sisters mythos that Argento would also use for some other movies. And the words come second to the visuals, which are no less than stunning.

Eye-searing reds complement deep blacks, whether it's the decor or the bright blood spilling out of victims. You get other colours too, but it's the reds that imprint themselves on the mind most vividly. This is such a gorgeous movie that, yes, almost every frame could be removed and hung up as a painting. It's one of the most beautiful movies you will ever see and easily remains the most gorgeous horror movie ever painted on film.

Then you have the audio work, layering on the atmosphere and chills. That classic score by Goblin is every bit as good as you've heard it is and the sound design throughout is flawless (not counting the dubbed dialogue), from footsteps being listened to by lead characters to breathing emanating from invisible observers, making it seem like the building itself is the main presence, and the moments that feature shattering glass and pierced flesh.

If you have still not seen this then change that as soon as possible. If you recently saw the remake and thought it better than this then I encourage a revisit. You may still prefer the new take on the material but it's worth reminding yourself of just how absolutely gorgeous and chilling the original is.

10/10

You may want to shop around, but here is one disc version of the film.
Americans can pick up this edition.


Sunday, 9 December 2018

Yule Love It: The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

I was down for this movie as soon as I first heard about it. Kurt Russell as Santa Claus, that was all I needed to hear. Sold.

The Christmas Chronicles tells the story of two siblings, Kate (Darby Camp) and Teddy (Judah Lewis), who are facing their first Christmas since the death of their father. Teddy has been keeping himself busy with friends, stealing cars for joyrides, while younger Kate remains naïvely optimistic that everyone can get their wishes from Santa. When their mother (Kimberley Williams-Paisley) has to head out to work on Christmas Eve, Kate convinces Teddy to keep her company as she stays up all night, determined to videotape evidence of Santa. They eventually get their evidence. In fact, they stow themselves in the back of Santa's sleigh, eventually causing a crash that sees Santa losing his magic hat and potentially losing out on the chance to make Christmas happen for lots of children who will lose the Christmas spirit.

Written by Matt Lieberman, from a story created with David Guggenheim, this is a solid attempt to create yet another Santa mythos for the modern age. You have the magic hat, you get some helpful little elves (depicted with poor CGI, although I am sure that kids will still enjoy seeing them), and you get a Santa who both embodies the traditional look while also complaining about how he's always depicted as being a fat guy who says "ho ho ho". It doesn't all work, but the bits that do make up for the bits that don't.

Director Clay Kaytis only has one other directorial credit (the middling movie version of Angry Birds) but has a solid background in animation that stretches beyond that. He doesn't do a bad job, all in all, and it's not really the kind of material that lets anyone put their stamp on things, aside from Russell. This is a Christmas movie, but it's also very much a star vehicle, and it often works better in the latter form than it does in the former. Let's face it, we have plenty of Christmas movies to choose from. But none of those star Kurt Russell.

As for the cast, did I mention the big plus of having Russell as Santa? Whether he's talking with naive candour to people who are never going to believe his story or jamming in a jail cell with members of the E Street Band, Russell is clearly having a lot of fun onscreen, and that comes over to viewers. Camp is okay as the young girl, Lewis has a harder job portraying the sullen teen who has got himself on the naughty list (of course), and Williams-Paisley is just there to bookend the film with scenes of family time during the holiday season. And there's a fun, if predictable, cameo at the end of the film.

Is this a great film? No. Is it one you may well end up watching more than once, and perhaps use as a new seasonal standby in between some of your more established classics? It just might be. Especially if you have kids who need a big playlist while they impatiently await the arrival of Christmas Day itself.

6/10

Here's a great selection of Christmassy movies for the family to enjoy.
Americans can get it here.


Saturday, 8 December 2018

Yule Love It: Journey Back To Christmas (2016)

If there's one thing I enjoy more than a Christmas movie, it's a good bit of time-travel fun. So when I heard that Journey Back To Christmas mixed in both of these things, well, I was sold. Yes, I have said this so many times that anyone who has read some of my other reviews will know it doesn't take a lot to sell me on something. But it keeps me happy.

Candace Cameron Bure plays Hanna, a nurse in WWII who ends up somehow transported to the future (2016) and has to figure out a) how to convince people that she's not insane, b) how to get back to her own time, and c) how to teach people a valuable lesson that feels in the spirit of the season. Luckily for her, she ends up in the company of some people who believe her story quite easily, and who are quite willing to learn a thing or two from Hanna, which really only leaves her having to figure out how to get back, if that's at all possible.

Although she doesn't seem to be someone I have seen in many other movies (strange, considering how many of these things she has starred in, although I reviewed the poor A Christmas Detour here), Bure is a likeable enough leading lady, portraying the sweeter than sweet heroine we often see in these Christmas features. The supporting cast are fairly bland though, although that's also often the case for these particular movies, with the only two standing out being Oliver Hudson, playing the police officer who seems strangely trusting of this woman who claims to have come from the past, and Tom Skerritt playing someone who reveals his identity in a timely fashion during the third act. Brooke Nevin isn't too bad in the role of Sarah, who obviously holds a candle for Hudson's character, but the rest of the supporting players may as well not have been there, for all they add to the experience.

Of course, part of that is the fault of writer Maria Nation, who takes a fun central idea and then tries to ruin it with unnecessary distractions. A few less scenes showing the local resident who views Hanna as a danger and a few more scenes of Hanna adjusting to 21st-century life and this would have been a lot more fun.

Director Mel Damski also could have done more. The film feels Christmassy enough, there are plenty of decorations on display and the requisite supply of snow, but it doesn't quite tick everything off the checklist that viewers may want from this kind of fare. I'm not saying that I REALLY wanted a sequence showing Bure being taught a song & dance routine for "Christmas In Holliston" but I'm not saying that including such a moment wouldn't have elevated this into one of my new favourite holiday movies.

I'm surprised that I liked this as much as I did. That may say as much about all of the other movies I have watched recently, and I've also already started to overdose on hot chocolate and advent calendar sweeties, but I'll recommend this one to anyone who wants yet another one to add to their overflowing viewing schedule this month.

6/10

A region 1 disc can be bought here.


Shudder Saturday: You Might Be The Killer (2018)

You Might Be The Killer starts off with a camp counsellor (Sam, played by Fran Kranz) escaping from a killer and hiding in a cabin. It's a standard slasher movie moment. Sam is covered in blood, he's scared, and he's miles and miles from anyone who can help him. Thankfully, he is able to phone a genre-literate friend (Chuck, played by Alyson Hannigan) who he hopes can help him get out of the situation alive. As Sam tries to remember the events that led him to this moment, filling in blank spots that he assumes stem from his recent trauma, Chuck eventually points out that a lot of the evidence would suggest that, well, he may actually be the killer. Sam doesn't seem like the killer type though, so just what HAS happened?

Now this is how you do this kind of thing. After being slightly disappointed this year by Tragedy Girls and Dead Shack, among others, I sat down to watch You Might Be The Killer with low expectations. I hadn't heard any buzz about the movie and the summary was in line with what I have just written above. Well, there should be some buzz for this one. It's a cracking little horror comedy that stuffs every scene with fun references, twists the slasher movie tropes in ways that are fun and inventive, and doesn't forget to deliver some good gore gags along the way.

Director Brett Simmons, who also co-wrote the film with Covis Berzoyne and Thomas P. Vityale (it's only the first or second feature screenplay for most of them), does a fantastic job of keeping everything feeling as if it belongs in the slasher movie subgenera, even as things start to twist and turn. Having previously let me down with Husk (a scarecrow horror movie that some others may enjoy more than I did), Simmons isn't someone I had on my radar to keep an eye on, career-wise, but I'll certainly be looking forward to whatever he does after this.

It helps that I quite like both Kranz and Hannigan, and I appreciate that not everyone will. They both do well here, with the former a bag of tension and nervous energy (even in the flashbacks to pre-massacre scenes) and the latter amusingly unflappable throughout while offering advice on the phone during her work shift. Brittany S. Hall, Jenna Harvey, and Bryan Price are also very good, playing three of the more memorable camp counsellors who may or may not survive to the end credits.

If you're like me, someone who likes both the leads and doesn't mind meta humour, then it's hard to see you not enjoying this. The bodycount being shown onscreen may seem like one unnecessary, cutesy, detail too much, but it's not just a gag, it's a smart way to immediately let viewers know when things are happening, given the playful, non-chronological structure of the screenplay.

Pair this up with The Final Girls and you have a very entertaining double feature. Enjoy.

8/10

Anyone who enjoys this should also pick up this movie.
Americans can pick up another meta slasher here.


Friday, 7 December 2018

Yule Love It: The Flight Before Christmas (2008)

Directed by Michael Hegner and Kari Juusonen, and written by Marteinn Thorisson, Hannu Tuomainen, with additional dialogue from Mark Hodkinson, The Flight Before Christmas is, let’s cut to the chase here, pretty bad. Even when you compare it to other movies made for children, it doesn’t hold up well.

The story revolves around Niko, a young reindeer who is convinced that he can fly, despite also having some bad vertigo. His father was one of the flying reindeer that help Santa on his travels, or so he believes, and Niko sets out to meet him, accompanied by his friend, Julius (a flying squirrel). They make a friend along the way, a weasel named Wilma, but also have some dangerous wolves following them on their journey. The leader of the wolves has a plan, and it involves eating some reindeer AND Santa.

There's nothing here to make The Flight Before Christmas memorable, there's barely even enough here to put into a full review. It's an animated film for younger viewers that pales in comparison to many other choices you could have available. If you're ever wanting to stick on something snowy and charming to distract children then I would recommend any of the Rankin/Bass creations before this, which already gives you a handful of options before even considering Disney fare or other cartoon specials.

The voice cast, on the version I watched, includes both Norm Macdonald and Emma Roberts, respectively playing Julius and Wilma, but those were the only voices I recognised, although both helped to make it a bit more bearable than it otherwise might have been. Niko sounds suitably young, the scary wolf sounds suitably villainous, and Macdonald and Roberts sound suitably like Macdonald and Roberts.

It's the animation that allows this to stand out, and not in a good way. This is a poor piece of work that feels either inept or lazy, with the characters designed and moving as if they just stepped out of a 16-bit games console. And the environments they are placed in never feel like more than backgrounds, giving the whole thing the look of one of those books that you placed stickers in to make a story.

The script isn't great either, although it hits all of the expected notes. There's just nothing done to make this more magical or fun, despite a couple of moments in the finale that at least provide a predictable and satisfying conclusion to events. But anything actually decent is hampered by the technical shortcomings and seeming lack of care.

Very young viewers WILL enjoy this, it's at least perfectly pitched at their level in terms of the simplicity of the storyline and ideas, but you can forget about it once they've experienced some of the better seasonal treats and have started to become even the tiniest bit more discerning.

3/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Thursday, 6 December 2018

Yule Love It: With Love, Christmas (2017)

Emilie Ullerup plays Melanie Welch, a young woman who is a bit of a pushover with a good heart. Aaron O'Connell is Donovan Goodwin, a colleague who doesn't really care for anything that isn't in line with his career path, whether it is evenings out with people or the general atmosphere of Christmas cheer. These two people work in an advertising agency, and they are pushed together when the company is given a limited timeframe in which to come up with the latest seasonal advert for a mobile phone company. It also turns out that Melanie is given Donovan in the Secret Santa pick, and vice versa. Personal development and revelations follow.

I can already picture the faces of many people reading this review. The rolling of the eyes, the smirking, perhaps even the look of pity as they remember that someone has been writing these words after watching lots of these movies, as I like to do every year. I get it, I do, these aren't going to be films that you necessarily rush to revisit. They fill up the schedules in December and that's really their only purpose, because that's when everyone wants occasional doses of good cheer to accompany them as they recover from battling through crowds in stores or wrapping far too many gifts.

With Love, Christmas isn't even one of the better examples of this field of entertainment. The script by Marcy Holland (who has done a LOT of these, including The Spruces And The Pines, to name just one) is perfunctory, at best. There's enough Christmassy dressing on display, which is easy enough for Hallmark to do, but the plotting leaves a lot to be desired, especially when one of the big final reveals during the finale is pre-empted by scenes in which viewers already see things being figured out, removing any small bit of tension that could have been there.

Director Marita Grabiak, less experienced in this particular subgenre than Holland, keeps everything basic. There's no energy or sense of fun here, sadly, but every element is where it should be. If this was a meal then it would be bland and unimpressive to look at, but would provide you with all of the things your body requires from a standard portion of food.

With the direction and writing being so relatively lacklustre, it's up to the cast to lift things up. O'Connell doesn't have the ability to do that. Neither do the supporting players, including Rebecca Davis, Milo Shander, and Michael St. John Smith. Fortunately for all concerned, Ullerup CAN. She cannot perform miracles, of course, but she's good enough in her lead role to make this whole thing much more enjoyable than it would be with the wrong person heading things up.

If it didn't have Ullerup in it, this film would have been marked a point or two below average. Thanks to her presence, it ends up right in the middle. It's just a shame that the rest of the cast couldn't be as good, otherwise this could have risen even higher, despite the mediocre script and unenthusiastic direction.

5/10

I still recommend this set.
Americans should treat themselves to Mickey's Christmas Carol.


Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Yule Love It: A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)

Everyone returns for this sequel to the very funny and enjoyable Bad Moms, with the cast also being swelled out by some great new additions, and maybe that's something that ends up working against the end product. It's not really a bad film. I laughed a fair few times, I enjoyed spending times with the characters, but it's one of those sequels that plays things all too safe by basically reworking the first movie, with a few minor twists and tweaks. That can be fun. I am sure that I have thoroughly enjoyed some sequels that have been designed that way. But I was left disappointed by this one.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn are, once again, parents struggling to live up to the ideal image set by society. But this time society is right in their homes, in the shape of THEIR mothers (played by, respectively, Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines, and Susan Sarandon). And it's all about Christmas. Baranski is too pushy, happy to throw gifts at her grandchildren as she plans an extravagant Christmas for everyone around her family to be suitably impressed by, Hines is just unable to give her daughter any space, and Sarandon is so lacking in maternal instinct that Hahn starts to reconsider her own approach to parenting.

You can tell how things are going to pan out from the very opening scenes, although that's made all the more obvious by it starting with a depressed Kunis telling viewers that she has ruined Christmas before then jumping back in time to show how she got to that point. But there are no surprises here, and that's not just due to the structuring.

Writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore obviously feel that fans of the first movie were most entertained by the scenes showing some bad behaviour, which is why they rework them here. One main sequence, which basically has the women saying "fuck the capitalism and unattainable standards of the Christmas that we have all been sold", is amusing, but far less amusing than it could have been. Why? Because it's really just the same montage that we saw in the first movie, except this time around we have Christmas decorations involved. Despite having developed into different people by the end of the first movie, even slightly, the leads are now back to exactly as they were, although ready to band together for occasional moments of civil disobedience. The entrance of the grandparents allows Lucas and Moore to pretend that this isn't a pretty weak retread, but that is exactly what it is.

All of the leads do well though. Hahn is a scene-stealer once again, and both Kunis and Bell do well in their roles. Baranski is the best of the newcomers, but Sarandon and Hines certainly have their moments, and the latter made me laugh as she desperately called out diseases that she was pretending to be afflicted by in order to deflect her daughter resenting her.

And that's the saving grace of A Bad Mom's Christmas. It's much like Daddy's Home 2, which I know I am in the minority for enjoying. Whatever you think of the lack of originality, of the predictable plotting, of the sheer needlessness of it all, it provides some laughs. It provides some good laughs, although a few more wouldn't have gone amiss. But that's what a comedy should do, make you laugh, and this succeeds in that department.

6/10

Treat yourself to double the bad moms here.


Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Yule Love It: The Princess Switch (2018)

Vanessa Hudgens is Lady Margaret, a soon-to-be-wed royal figure who is marrying her partner because it is her duty, not because she is in love with him. But she really wants to spend a couple of days before her wedding just getting to look around and spend time with the everyday people of Belgravia. Vanessa Hudgens is also Stacy De Novo, a top baker who is due to participate in a baking competition that takes place in Belgravia. When Lady Margaret sees Stacy, the two literally bump into one another, she thinks it will be a great idea if they swap places for a couple of days. Her fiancé, Prince Edward (Sam Palladio) is due to be away on business anyway, so that makes things easier. Stacy just needs to learn a bit about how to behave, and put on a posh accent, while Lady Margaret needs to loosen up a bit and also change her accent.

Considering the previous two TV movies from director Mike Rohl were Miss Christmas and Royal Matchmaker, this would seem like an obvious fit for him, mixing the royal romance with the holiday trimmings (and I've been surprised in recent years to find just how many Christmas films make use of a royal romance plot - who knew there were so many small provinces with princes desperate to get married?). And he seems to have put himself in safe hands with writer Robin Benheim, who has an extensive list of credits already, and who co-wrote this with Megan Metzger. Not that this is a quotable classic or anything, movies of this kind rarely are, but you have all of the usual lessons learned, a couple of twists and turns, and the necessary amount of festive cheer.

I can't say that this film does anything truly amazing, it's a rare holiday film indeed that rises up to that level, but I'm not going to write this review without heaping a serious amount of praise upon the main performances from Hudgens. Easy to dismiss because of the film that she's starring in, Hudgens gives an absolutely fantastic selection of skilled turns, either portraying Stacy or Lady Margaret, or even Lady Margaret pretending to be Stacy, OR Stacy pretending to be Lady Margaret (which make up the majority of her scenes). It's a shame that few people will give her credit for this, because it's JUST a Christmas movie (and, basically, a TV movie made by Netflix), but her performance is consistently pretty flawless. Seriously. She lifts up the whole film by being utterly convincing with anything that she's trying onscreen.

As for the rest of the cast, Palladio is Princely enough as the Prince, Sara Stewart and Pavel Douglas are okay as his surprisingly understanding parents, Nick Sagar and Alexa Adeosun are both likeable enough as Stacy's friend/sous chef Kevin and his young daughter Olivia, respectively, and Suanne Braun and Mark Fleischmann are the main staff members helping the royal couple, with Braun trying to help things go smoothly and Fleischmann trying to figure out why something suddenly seems different about Lady Margaret.

I've seen better Christmas movies, I've seen better movies with people trading places, I've seen better Vanessa Hudgens movies. That doesn't make this one any less of a pleasant surprise, and I hope it's one that more people will see and appreciate, if only for the not-inconsiderable talent on display from the leading lady.

6/10

Three festive films are available here.
Americans may want this triple bill of The Santa Clause movies.


Monday, 3 December 2018

Yule Love It: Desk Set (1957)

If you don't already have Desk Set marked off your list of Christmas movies that you have seen and enjoyed then, take a cue from me, change that now. Admittedly, it's easy to look at it as nothing more than another excellent pairing of the wonderful Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy but all of the festive trimmings are on display, and the script includes both some fun references to common Christmas trivia questions and also some main gifts that prove to be very relevant to the plot.

Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head of a reference section in a television network building. She answers calls, as do her staff, and prides herself on the wealth of knowledge that they can get a hold of, often due to the fact that they have a head start with their experience and particular skills. Tracy plays Richard Sumner, a man who has been called in to get the measure of the place and install a computer. All of the women working in the department immediately start worrying about their jobs, yet Hepburn and Tracy start to enjoy each other's company, despite seeming to view the main job being evaluated from very different angles. Hepburn also has a boyfriend (Mike, played by Gig Young) who seems to have taken her a bit for granted for too long, but maybe he needs to make more of an effort now that someone else may be taking an interest in her wonderfulness (and was Hepburn anything less than utterly wonderful? I don't think so).

Written by the husband and wife team of Henry and Phoebe Ephron (yes, they also had children, including one named Nora, something I may mention every time I reference their work, apologies), Desk Set is a delight from start to finish. The opening scenes have Tracy being amusingly eccentric as he sizes up the building and workspace, introduces the female characters who make up the reference section, and then quickly set him up as being rather at odds with Hepburn, and everything moves on from there in a set of great exchanges and set-pieces (with highlights including Tracy and Hepburn having a dinner together that is interrupted by Mike, an exuberant Christmas party, and an inevitable finale that tests the computer against humans). It may be based on a play, written by William Marchant, but the fact that it feels just set-bound doesn't really matter when the dialogue and performances are as good as they are.

Director Walter Lang may not equal his personal best work here (and The King & I is a tough one to top) but he doesn't get in the way of that chemistry that made pretty much every Hepburn/Tracy movie so much fun to watch. Things are kept simple, so simple that I am surprised it runs for just over 100 minutes, and that was obviously the best choice for the material.

All of the cast do well, although it's easy to overlook them when being kept so mesmerised by the star central pairing (who are, it goes without saying, on great form). Young has the unsympathetic role of the unappreciative boyfriend, and he's perfectly misguided and cocky in his role, while Joan Blondell is also highly entertaining as the main staff member, Peg, who you feel could easily run the department during any times Hepburn has to be absent. Dina Merrill and Sue Randall are the other ladies who may soon find themselves out of work, and Neva Patterson does some great work in her small role as the woman coming in to give the computer a test run once it is in place.

Full of laughs, and with many moments that arguably resonate today even more than they did back in 1957, Desk Set is a sweet and sharp near-classic that should please fans of the leads.

8/10

You can buy a set for yourself here.
Americans can buy it here.


Mubi Monday: Hellzapoppin' (1941)

Chic Johnson and Ole Olson play . . . Chic Johnson and Ole Olson in this film version of a popular play that allows them to cram every scene with gags, references, and lots of moments in which they break the fourth wall.

What's the plot? Well, for the most part, it concerns Chic and Ole helping a couple to fall in love, which involves helping the successful staging of a play. Except for the confusion which leads to the pair thinking they should sabotage the play, working under the misapprehension that their friend (Jeff, played by Robert Paige) should no longer be interested in the lovely Kitty Rand (Jane Frazee). Meanwhile, Betty (Martha Raye) is trying to keep the suave Pepi (Mischa Auer) in her grasp. And this is all a plot being described as a potential way to adapt the show into a film, with the main narrative bookended by scenes featuring Richard Lane as a frustrated director, and Elisha Cook Jr as the man helping him to work through the script that is describing the main body of the picture. Confused yet? It makes sense when you watch the film, in a way that is enjoyably anarchic and nonsensical.

Hellzapoppin' is another perfect film to show people who think that all "old movies" were wooden affairs, limited by the technology of the time. If you've watched the likes of The Invisible Man and Sherlock Jr then you'll already know that artists have been working magic with camera trickery ever since the infancy of cinema, but this film arguably takes that to another level. As well as the in-jokes (and there's a Citizen Kane gag that deserves a special mention), you have characters interacting with their "offscreen" counterparts, a wonderful sequence in which our comedic duo both become partially invisible, and even some jiggery-pokery (yes, that is the exact term for it) with the celluloid itself, separating our duo over and under individual frames and also turning them upside down momentarily.

Major praise deserves to go to director H. C. Potter, and writers Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson (and an uncredited Alex Gottlieb, apparently), for managing to wrangle the absurdity and rat-a-tat gags into something even remotely resembling an actual film, but they're helped along by the people who managed to create the many effects and use their technical know-how to get everything onscreen that would be done nowadays with veritable ease.

Johnson and Olson are fine in the lead roles, and they take the majority of the best gags, but Martha Raye steals many scenes as the boisterous and non-nonsense Betty and Auer is a lot of fun as Pepi. Paige and Frazee are stuck with the relatively straight roles, and both do what the roles require, Lane and Cook Jr prompt some laughs in their limited amount of time onscreen, and Hugh Herbert wanders around in a variety of silly disguises.

If you haven't seen Hellzapoppin' then you owe it to yourself to change that. And once you've seen it then you may well want to watch it again immediately. It's a film that holds up to repeat viewings, and it deserves to reach a much wider audience.

9/10

You can buy this anarchic movie here.
Americans can pick it up here.
This is a film crying out for a special edition though, shame on whichever companies are responsible for leaving it to languish without being given enough love.



Sunday, 2 December 2018

Yule Love It: The Holiday Calendar (2018)

AKA Netflix and chill for this week.

You often find that people who have written and directed one holiday movie have written and directed quite a few of them. That has become more and more common with the exponential increase in content being created for various channels, the main ones being Hallmark (the old pro), Lifetime (also quite an old hand with them), and Netflix (new on the block but showing some good form so far). Director Bradley Walsh gave us no less than THREE Christmas movies last year (Christmas Encore, Christmas Festival Of Ice, and Christmas In Angel Falls) and, so far, I saw one of them. It was slightly below average. Would The Holiday Calendar be better? The short answer is no.

Kat Graham plays a talented photographer named Abby Sutton who finds her life developing (no photography-related pun intended there) in unexpected and exciting ways when she is given an antique advent calendar that seems to predict her future, with each daily gift corresponding to things that then happen to Abby. This leads to her becoming involved with an eligible bachelor (Ty, played by Ethan Peck) while her best friend, and possible perfect guy (Josh, played by Quincy Brown), looks on from the sidelines. Will the calendar direct Abby towards happiness, with the additional help of her grandpa (Ron Cephas Jones)?

The Holiday Calendar is a strange film to rate. It’s not great, but not many of these films are, but it’s also not great when compared to other films of this type. There are certain tropes that you look out for, certain items that help you check off the numbers on your “Christmas Movie Bingo” card. This film has a number of those tropes, and also has an admirably diverse cast, including a couple of interracial couples depicted without any sign that this is a fairly radical concept in the world of the bleached-smile, homogenised, pigeonholing that normally dictates the populace of these movies. But none of the tropes feel as if they're being presented with any enthusiasm, leaving the whole thing feeling a little bit lacklustre throughout. But at least it makes up for in quantity what it seems to lack in quality, with every scenes almost bursting at the seams with candy canes, Christmas trees, sweet cookie treats, and general yuletide cheer.

Graham is fine in the lead, although a bit weaker than some choices for this kind of fare, but the highlight is Jones as the wryly amused and wise grandfather. Brown has to spend a lot of time being slightly frustrated at Graham not taking note of his suitability and cuteness, and Peck is . . . well, let's just say that he suffers the most from a script that makes him out to be pretty perfect and then has to tie itself in knots to show that he may not be the one for our lead.

Walsh directs everything capably enough, keeping everything smelling of hot chocolate and fir trees to distract you from the slightly incoherent script, from Amyn Kaderali. It's almost as if this started off heading down one path and was then forced to divert in another direction, but the seasonal magic and good cheer do just enough to save it from going completely off the rails.

Colourful, inoffensive, The Holiday Calendar is also amusing enough and entertainingly far-fetched to make it a passable time-waster during the holiday season.

5/10.

Here's a decent selection of Christmassy movies to pick up.
Americans may want to check out this collection.


Saturday, 1 December 2018

Yule Love It: Pride, Prejudice And Mistletoe (2018)

Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Pride & Prejudice but I am pretty sure that this Christmas TV movie, based on a book by Melissa de la Cruz, has very little to do with it. Oh, there’s a name or two used, and you could say that there are thematic similarities in between the Christmas songs and decorations, but anyone hoping for a modern, tinsel-covered, riff on the work of Jane Austen should not be counting on this.

Lacey Chabert plays Darcy Fitzwilliam (Darcy . . . get it?), a young woman who prides herself on being good at her job, helping people invest and reap great rewards, without leaving out smaller investors. When she heads home for the holidays, she ends up helping her mother (Sherry Miller) get things organised for a charity auction that all needs to run smoothly. Darcy ends up being pushed into working alongside Luke (Brendan Penny), a man she has known since her schooldays, and someone she doesn’t always get along with. Which means the potential for romance is obviously soon in the air. But Darcy’s ex, Carl (played by Morgan David Jones), obviously still has a thing for her. And there's some scheming going on at her workplace while she is absent.

I'm not going to pretend that I was keen to see this because I have an overwhelming love of Jane Austen works, so the fact that this didn't really seem to do enough to warrant the cutesy title didn't bother me too much. I also wasn't aware of director Don McBrearty or writer Nina Weinman before this (which isn't to say that I haven't come across their work before now, McBrearty has three Christmas movies churned out THIS YEAR and Weinman has a solid-looking CV in this arena).

I watched this for one reason, and one reason only. Lacey Chabert. She's someone I have always found to be a likeable presence onscreen and her ubiquitousness throughout the festive period has become, for me, one of the staples of the season. She does well with material that, as we all know, often doesn't have too much to differentiate it from fifty other movies you could watch in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. Penny doesn't do that bad either, while Miller and Art Hindle (who has a couple of scenes playing the father of Chabert's character) are both enjoyable enough. It's a shame that the script couldn't have done more with Jones, however, as he just pops up now and again to act like a complication when he's actually not. He's just an unnecessary presence. But make him a more desperate figure, have him scheming and twirling a fake moustache, and you could maybe have turned this whole movie into something much more enjoyable.

Once again with this type of thing, those who know what they are getting will get what they're after, to a degree. Trees, snow, Christmas tunes, Lacey Chabert. It just doesn't have any moments that are good enough to raise it up, despite all being as slick and fairly well-paced as however many other choices Hallmark will be giving us this year.

4/10

Look at THIS set, you know you want it.
Americans may want this triple-bill.


Shudder Saturday: Frost (2012)

A horror film that plays out in the found footage style for the most part, Frost is a strange, and ultimately unsatisfying, mix. It tries to do something a bit different, fair enough, but the execution of the material is so crushingly dull that any of the better moments are weighed down by the bad stuff.

Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir plays Agla, and Björn Thors plays her partner, Gunnar. The two wake up one morning to find themselves completely alone in the glacier camp that is their place of work. Everyone is gone. Is it a prank, or is something more mysterious going on? Some strange things soon start to occur, adding up to paint a sinister picture.

Directed by Reynir Lyngdal and written by Jón Atli Jónasson, there are enough elements placed here for the potential enjoyment of others that I’ll have to try and remain vague. Unfortunately, some of the more intriguing aspects of the film are left too underdeveloped or ambiguous, while the more obvious moments are marred by the ugliness of the camerawork and shot choice (for that proper cinema verité style). Frights are jump scares, with some of them being more effective than others, and there's something about the way the main characters are in and out of the freezing conditions that somehow undercuts any attempts to create a spooky atmosphere.

Guðmundsdóttir and Thors aren't bad leads. They do decent work and display a relationship that feels fairly grounded and realistic, for the most part. But they aren't captivating or interesting enough to make up for the weak script. I wouldn't be able to pick either of them out of a line-up, although that's partially due to the fact that they spend a lot of the movie wearing thick clothing and protection against the elements.

When I pressed play on Frost I felt, somehow, that I might be stumbling upon a little gem. I hadn't heard any praise for it, but I also hadn't heard anything negative about it. I just hadn't heard of it at all (a relatively rare occurrence for me, if I say so myself). It turns out that not hearing about Frost is something that will continue to happen because there's not much to say about it. It's neither impressive or entertaining enough to recommend, nor is it incompetent or derivative enough to expend energy on while you laugh and roll your eyes.

Do yourself a favour, give it a miss, and go seek out the Cold Prey trilogy instead. You may even thank me for it.

4/10

Frost can be bought here.


Friday, 30 November 2018

How To Talk To Girls At Parties (2017)

It's the 1970s and three young lads (Enn, played by Alex Sharp, Vic, played by Abraham Lewis, and John, played by Ethan Lawrence) want nothing more than to revel in anything that retains the essence of pure punk and be allowed to revel in the company of girls that they fancy. Lost on their way to an after party, they end up in a building that houses a number of aliens. But they don't realise that the inhabitants are aliens. Enn meets the lovely Zan (Elle Fanning), who then runs away with him to see more of the outside world, and to experience some punk.

Based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, this is a blend of genres that will be familiar to anyone who has had the pleasure of reading his work. Gaiman loves to throw together different ingredients to create his own new recipes, and I am sure that the source material of this is very enjoyable. It's unfortunate that the film doesn't get things right when translating the material to the screen.

Director John Cameron Mitchell, who also worked on the script with Philippa Goslett, doesn't seem to know what to do with the story. Unable to decide on whether to focus on some comedy, the sci-fi elements, or the romance, or even the desperate need of the youngsters who found a voice in the sound of punk, he fails to find the right approach to anything, and is unable to compensate for it with required style and energy. To make a film that is so based around punk rock without a sense of energy is just, well, it would seem to be a difficult thing to do. Yet Mitchell manages it.

The script works when providing shorthand notes on the alien life cycles, but falters in so many other scenes, either by not making the dialogue sharp enough or just giving characters lines to say that feel tonally jarring compared to other moments in the film. Not that it's entirely unsuccessful. There ARE some genuinely good moments (most of the scenes featuring Nicole Kidman are great, and the very end of the film is surprisingly effective) but they make the lesser scenes all the more disappointing.

The youngsters all do decent work, even if Fanning feels less convincing when she's called upon to try her hand at singing like an actual punk, but it's the older cast members who help to save this from being unwatchable. Kidman, sporting a decent British accent too, is absolutely wonderful as an older punk who has sacrificed a hell of a lot in the hope of being present during great moments in punk history, Joanna Scanlan is good as the mother of Enn, and Ruth Wilson is great fun as a dangerous alien who seems to enjoy all of the life cycle her species goes through.

Some people may get more out of this than I did, of course, but it was hugely disappointing for me. Not being sure of the tone and focus is one thing, not making the best use of Fanning is another, but to not even have a good enough soundtrack to detract from those failings . . . well, that should have been avoided at all costs, considering the wild, strong spirit at the heart of the whole thing.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Thursday, 29 November 2018

Shoplifters (2018)

Blood is thicker than water. You can choose your friends but can't choose your family. Whatever happens, your mother is always your mother. These are some common phrases that many people tend to use as 100% true statements. I don't think they're true. At all. And, considering the content of Shoplifters, I don't think writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda does either.

Shoplifter revolves around a family unit that has, at its core, a father (Osamu, played by Lily Franky), a mother (Nobuyo, played by Sakura Ando), and one son (Shota, played by Kairi Jō). There's also a grandmother and one other, younger, woman in the house. They have their moments, but they're not the beating heart of the tale. Osamu and Shota are the shoplifters, perfecting their craft daily and making a decent score from each trip to the shops. When they find a very young girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) they eventually decide to let her stay with them. It seems that Yuri has been stuck in an unhappy situation for most of her brief childhood, so her new life is an improvement, even if she ends up being introduced to the shoplifting life.

That's one main aspect of Shoplifters, the fact that a family made up of bad people can still be a good thing for the ones they love and care for. The main adults that we are watching have some major flaws, but those flaws don't seem to matter so much when they're also shown to be offering something that was missing from the lives of the young ones in their lives. The other main aspect of the movie is that family doesn't have to be made up of the people assigned to you at birth. You CAN pick who becomes your family. There are two quotes that stand out here, although I will have to paraphrase. One is about how the bonds you choose are stronger than the bonds simply forced upon you. The other is when a character states that giving birth to a child doesn't automatically make you a mother. It's often the case that we hear about men not being fathers just because they helped to conceive the child, but the same is equally true of mothers (although they go through much more on the journey from conception to birth, of course).

The acting from all involved here is superb, so I will just single out both Kairi Jō and Miyu Sasaki, who give two of the best child performances I have seen in recent years. The former is at an age where he is starting to ask a few more questions and consider acts of rebellion, the latter is young and innocent without being overly delicate or precocious. As an ensemble piece, this is pretty much flawless when it comes to the acting.

It helps that Koreeda has crafted such a wonderful tale, one that unfolds with a few twists and turns that allow you to question your own views without ever feeling as if the rug was pulled out from under your feet. The film is full of a precariously balanced state of peace and contentment that you suspect may not last, and indeed feel cannot last for these characters, yet you want it to. You want it to last forever.

There's a scene in the final act of Shoplifters that has the main characters all enjoying a day at the beach. It's a sweet, uplifting scene. If Koreeda has worked his magic on you, as he did on me, then you want the film to just end there. That's a family having a pretty perfect family day out. But that's not where the story ends. What family story does?

9/10

Shoplifters can be picked up here, eventually.



Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Prime Time: Slapped! The Movie (2018)

It normally doesn't take much to put a movie on my radar. Someone can mention that they loved or hated it. A mainstream release will be obvious, you cannot avoid those blockbuster adverts online, on the sides of buses, and everywhere else. And I sometimes even get communications from film-makers directly. That's what happened on this occasion. I politely replied that I didn't really have the time or space in my schedule to check this film out, but then it turned out that I did. Would it be worth a watch? Well, it gives me a blog post, if nothing else. But for people involved in the film, unless reviewers really love their final product, or at least offer constructive critiicism, it's hard to tell what they might gain from a review that could end up being lukewarm, or even negative.

As ever, I approached this with an open mind. The trailer hadn't won me over, although I've yet to see a great trailer cut for an independent comedy film, but I had time on my hands and my ever-present sense of optimism.

Slapped! The Movie is a bodyswap film based on the web series, co-created by stars Alex Magana (who also directs here) and Matt Lowe. Alex and Matt play . . . Alex and Matt, two best friends who are quite clearly opposites of one another. Alex looks after his body, has quite a good life, but has no luck with women. Matt is a bit of a lazy slob, has a great girlfriend (Alysse Fozmark), and is woken up most mornings by his lovely mother (Aimee Binford) and her equally lovely same-sex partner (Erin Hagen). Long story short, the two are slapped by a hobo after a drunken night out and end up in each other's bodies. Various challenges lie ahead. There's a triathlon that Alex is due to compete in, a comedy night that Matt has signed up for, Alex has a chance to win over a woman he likes (Jenna, played by Shelby Meader) while he has the mind of Matt, and Matt has to just avoid having sex with his girlfriend while he has the mind of Alex.

There are lots of silly jokes here that revolve around body fluids. If you don't like to see fake semen onscreen then this isn't the film for you. It gets more screentime than most of the supporting cast members. There's also some urine and vomit, which may be a triple-bill that Magana and Lowe viewed as their equivalent of blood, sweat, and tears. Some of these juvenile gags made me laugh, but I'm not a big fan of toilet humour so I would have hated this film if that was all it had going for it. Surprisingly, there's a bit more here that proves amusing enough for undemanding viewers. Alex lusting after Matt's mother while in the body of Matt is pretty twisted and funny stuff, a scene in which one character runs towards the other to fight him is good (avoid the trailer to avoid that being spoiled for you), and there's a very funny interlude in which Alex decides to head along to a game of bubble ball that is clearly inteended for kids only.

Despite their failings as leading men (sorry, Alex and Matt aren't the most natural actors), the central pair don't do a terrible job. It's a pleasant surprise, in fact, when you realise that you've watched over half the movie and stopped thinking of one, or both, as being very bloody annoying. Binford and Hagen are bloody good sports, and provide a lot of the biggest laughs as they mollycoddle Matt, and Fozmark and Meader both do alright in their roles. Okay, Meader is quite bad but she looks like a believable romantic interest for Alex.

The problem is that this runs for just under two hours, and both Magana and Lowe seem to have an approach that involves throwing everything at the screen and hoping some of it sticks. Some of it does, some really doesn't (I didn't find myself entertained by any of the hallucinations shown onscreen), and some gags feel amusing but better-suited to a different movie (Alex checking his devices while an art teacher discusses how the lesson is a break from the trappings of the modern world). I think both men either need an editor or need to limit themselves to shorter skits. The bodyswap concept is given a fun twist here, and it's fun to see how dark and twisted things get as the plot unfolds, but there's too much that is completely unnecessary.

The end result falls a bit below average, which is a shame, especially when some judicious editing and a bit more time spent on the pacing and honing the gags that worked best would have resulted in something that, while still no masterpiece, would have been a very pleasant surprise for those who stumbled across it while looking for something to tickle their funny bone.

3/10

You can watch Slapped! The Movie here.
Americans can watch it here.


Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (2018)

LOOK AT HOW MUCH MONEY WE SPENT!

That's the main thing I took away from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald, a film that proves, in no small measure, that the Wizarding World movie universe, once a consistent stream of brilliant blockbuster entertainment, has now turned into a turgid trickle of diminishing returns. Remember the uproar about the casting of Johnny Depp in this movie? He's the least of its problems.

LOOK AT EVERYTHING WE THREW INTO THIS SCENE!

Starting as it means to go on, there's an action sequence that shows Grindelwald escaping from his imprisonment. I think, given the title of the movie and the advertising, it's not a spoiler to reveal that. This could have been a good action sequence. It's lively, imaginative, and sets up the villain perfectly. It's also far too busy, messily edited, dark, and hard to find engaging. I must warn you now that every main action sequence in the rest of the film follows this pattern (well, okay, most of them are lighter so at least you can see more of what you can't really see, if you know what I mean). The plot sees Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) trying to get hold of a young man (Ezra Miller) who may hold the key to his plans regarding the uprising of the magical folk. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, ill-advisedly attempting some accent that I guess is meant to remind you that Richard Harris played the first elder incarnation) wants Newt Sacamander (Eddie Redmayne) to get to the young man first. Dumbledore cannot battle Grindelwald himself, for reasons that become apparent as the plot unfolds. Newt doesn't want to pick sides in whatever trouble is brewing, but it eventually becomes apparent that he won't have a choice.

LOOK AT THE BUDGET ALL OVER THIS SEQUENCE!

Sometimes I make myself sandwiches to eat for lunch at work. And sometimes I make them the night before, to save me being cold and bleary-eyed and miserable in the morning while I butter bread and throw stuff together. A tuna mayonnaise sandwich is a tasty treat. But if you make it the night before, and if you like as much mayo in there as I do, then it's a cold, soggy, squishy mess by the time you try to eat it for your lunch. Sadly, that sandwich still holds more warmth and appeal than most performances from Eddie Redmayne. It's not that he's a bad actor, and he seems like a lovely person when I have seen him interviewed, but he seems unable to exude any real charm or sweetness in his roles, including this one, where those traits are pretty vital. The problem may not lie with the cast, however, as very few people make a good impression here. Depp is excellent in his role, Law does a decent job, and Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol are once again very enjoyable in the roles of Jacob and Queenie, but Miller isn't allowed to feel like anything other than a plot device, Katherine Waterston maintains her record of putting in a performance that barely registers, Zoe Kravitz is stifled, Callum Turner is bad enough to make a suitable brother to Redmayne's character, and the less said about the casting of one or two other characters we have seen in the Harry Potter movies the better. Claudia Kim and Poppy Corby-Tuech both do better than most of the bigger names, a pleasant surprise considering their characters are really just cohorts of the main characters being pursued by our gang of "heroes". 

LOOK AT WHAT WE DID JUST BECAUSE WE COULD DO IT!

J. K. Rowling wrote the script for this and, while I wouldn't deign to pretend I know my way around a page of words better than one of the best-selling authors in the world, she seems to have lost her way. I'm not sure if it's down to this tale being stretced out beyond breaking point or if she just enjoyed losing herself in her own world so much that she forgot to edit, or think of how certain changes to her world for the sake of this series would change what fans already know (and if you ever think you have a good head for trivia then just try to outwit a Harry Potter fan and see how long you last). There are so many diversions here that are completely unnecessary, fan service that will only irritate who know what should and shouldn't be possible, and adding to a 2+ hour runtime in a film that should really be looking to pare down anything that doesn't keep the kids enthralled enough to forget about how they need the loo every 30 minutes.

LOOK AT ALL OF THE STUFF! WE DID THAT! WE PAID FOR THAT! LOVE US!

If Rowling is being rather self-indulgent and careless, director David Yates is enabling her every step of the way. There's not one scene here that doesn't feel ridiculously overstuffed with . . . things, be they CGI creatures, effects-filled environments, too many small characters who didn't need to be in shot, and sauce and garnish on things that would be arguably more effective served up without them. This is a hat that has a band placed around the brim. And that brim is given a pinned flower in the front. Then the rest of the hat has a full bouquet placed on the top. That bouquet has fake bees attached by wires, to look like they're buzzing around. And birds are placed higher up. There's still a hat in there somewhere, but nobody can tell whether or not it's a well-made model underneath all of the artistic additions.

IT'S ALL POINTLESS BUT LOOKS GREAT, RIGHT?

Ultimately, there's a basic level of competency here, and spectacle, that still merits giving the film some plus points. But it's very difficult to imagine anyone coming out of this with a sense of complete satisfaction. Younger viewers will get a bit bored, I suspect. Older viewers may also get a bit bored, and find some bits just too childish. Dedicated fans will find details that annoy them. Casual fans will wonder why the film is full of so many diversions that they may not appreciate. And film fans will be generally displeased that they sat through a magical fantasy film that a) didn't feel as magical as it should have, and b) ultimately ended up being fairly pointless filler, considering how things end compared to how they started.

You'll go and see it anyway, and it will make loads of money, but I don't recommend it. I still want a niffler though.

4/10

You will also be able to buy the movie here.
Americans will be able to get it here.


Monday, 26 November 2018

Mubi Monday: We Are What We Are (2013)

A remake of a 2010 Mexican movie (which I have yet to see), We Are What We Are is a film I'd been hearing good things about for the past few years. I really wanted to see the original film first, but the timing didn't work out. That leaves me with this insular experience, nothing to compare and contrast it to, so anyone who has seen the 2010 movie should bear that in mind.

The Parker family are a strange lot. The father (Frank, played by Bill Sage) seems to spend a lot of his time reminding his daughters (Rose, played by Julia Garner, and Iris, played by Ambyr Childers) of the importance of their family traditions. There's also a younger son (Rory, played by Jack Gore) to be looked after. And the family are cannibals, which starts to come to the attention of a local doctor (Michael Parks) after he performs an autopsy on the dead mother. As the doctor is also looking for his missing daughter, he has a vested interest in finding out the truth, no matter how unpalatable it may be (no pun intended).

A family drama with occasional dollops of gore, this is a fairly tame and aesthetically-muted film from director Jim Mickle (who reworks the original into screenplay form with his favoured muse, Nick Damici, once again). Fans of his style will recognise his fingerprints throughout but it's impressive to see him create something that manages to feel like his work while also feeling removed from any of his previous outings.

The cast are uniformly excellent, even Gore as the youngest family member. Garner gets the most to do, and handles it all very capably, but Sage and Childers do great work, and Parks gives another of those performances that made him such an additional joy to watch in the latter portion of his career. There are also good supporting turns from Kelly Mcgillis and Wyatt Russell (both also effectively used by Mickle in previous films).

A cannibal movie more about the baggage that can be passed along from one generation to the next, We Are What We Are may prove slightly disappointing to anyone wanting blood-drenched gut-munching. But it should be a worthwhile viewing for those who go in expecting a quality drama with some thrills and a side dish of viscera.

7/10

You can chew on the movie here.
Americans can eat this.


Sunday, 25 November 2018

Netflix And Chill: The Party (2017)

Black and white, very stagey, without any major special effects, lacking any major brand recognition, The Party is about as far removed from most of your blockbuster movies as it is possible to be, and yet it proves to be just as enjoyable and gripping as any of them, for two simple reasons. A very good script and consistently great acting.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Janet, a woman who has just been promoted to a major position in her political party. Things aren't that good between her and her husband (Bill, played by Timothy Spall) but they will keep a polite smile pasted on and enjoy the party they are set to host. Well, that is the plan. It starts to unravel quickly, however, when the guests arrive and interact with one another, trading sweet barbs and not-so-subtle digs as secrets come to light and tension starts to build and build, to almost unbearable levels.

Written and directed by Sally Potter, with Walter Donohue credited as a story editor, The Party uses some standard melodramatic staples to show what happens when individuals start to forget how their beliefs, be they philosophical or political or religious, impact upon the lives of others. There's a lot going on here, either intentionally or unintentionally (I suspect the former), that underlines both the danger of trying to maintain the status quo while major upheaval is causing the ground to undulate and crumble beneath your feet and the pain that can come from making sudden decisions that will reverberate throughout the whole circle of people around you.

I'm not going to bore you by repeatedly saying how great everyone is. I'll just list the cast and who they play. Aside from the leads, both seeming to relish such great roles, you have Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz as a married couple hoping that this is their last friendly engagement before they divorce, Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer are a lesbian couple, with Mortimer pregnant with triplets, and Cillian Murphy is a banker who turns up without his wife, as she has been delayed, and seems intent on causing some trouble, considering the fact that he has a gun secreted on his person and is stuffiing cocaine up his nose within minutes of his arrival. Everyone does fantastic work, and all feel perfectly suited to their roles, but my personal favourite was Clarkson, who I wish could be present at every polite party I have to attend for the rest of my life.

Very cleverly done in the way that a number of points are made while also leaving plenty of blank spaces to be filled in by whatever viewers want to project there, The Party is a thought-provoking comedy that also holds up as something brilliantly entertaining. If you appreciate films that focus on quality dialogue and acting then this is a high priority. There are times when the experience of watching it is almost sublime.

9/10

You can invite yourself to The Party here.
Americans get a digital option here.
Yesterday was a great day in terms of traffic/pennies and I thank everyone who did a bit of shopping through some links here.