Tuesday, 16 January 2018

American Made (2017)

American Made is a glossy, lively biopic based on the life of Barry Seal, a pilot who ended up helping the CIA, smuggling drugs, and getting himself entangled in the whole Iran-Contra affair. Or so it would seem. Considering the personality involved, the potential for exaggeration and outright untruths, I am not sure of just how much to believe, and how much to take with a large pinch of salt. So, to be on the safe side, I took everything here with a large pinch of salt.

Directed by Doug Liman, reteaming with Tom Cruise after the superb sci-fi action of Edge Of Tomorrow AKA Live Die Repeat, this is a slick, fun, piece of entertainment. It's also something we have seen done many times before, and usually done much better.

The problems start with the script. It feels lazy, a melange of moments and cliches from recent and not-so-recent biopics. and, despite the runtime (this is about the two hour mark), it all feels a bit sparse. Writer Gary Spinelli isn't interested in the actual mechanics of the lifestyle on display, he doesn't even seem that interested in the risk to life and damage to others until it suits the pacing of the film to throw in a small set-piece. No, he just wants to show what amounts to a greatest hits photo album of the life of a man who was surely more complicated than the charming douchebag depicted here.

Speaking of charming douchebags, who the hell gets Tom Cruise for a role like this and then doesn't let him go full tilt with the bags of charm he has at his disposal? His cocky charm has been put to good use over the years in a number of roles that have allowed him to show more than a hint of danger glinting from that ultra-white smile. Rain Man, The Color Of Money, and Magnolia are the three best examples I can think of, taking his confident persona and turning it, even ever so slightly, against him. This film doesn't do that. It may try to, but it doesn't, perhaps because it seems to always depict the version of events as told by Seal, which doesn't allow viewers to consider how much of his claims may have been exaggerated or distorted to reposition himself in a better light.

The rest of the cast do okay with what they're given, although many of the supporting players are a bit wasted. Alice Eve plays "wife who goes along with things", Caleb Landry Jones is "brother who throws spanner in works", and it's only Domhnall Gleeson who gets a chance to make a better impression, playing a CIA operative making use of Seal without ever pretending that he can be dropped like a hot potato whenever things go bad.

Liman hits all of the notes that you expect him to hit. There are no surprises here, apart from the failure of many scenes to rise above average, and nothing to put this anywhere near the level of most of his other films (even Jumper, which nobody else seems to like as much as I do).

In summation, there's a decent soundtrack in search of a better movie to accompany. You can find half a dozen better movies for both the director and the star of this one. It won't ruin your whole day if you give it a watch, but I expect this to be largely forgotten a year from now.

5/10

Buy American Made here.
Or here, if you're one of them damn yankees.


Monday, 15 January 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

I HOPE that anyone who knows me, even a little bit, knows that I am never a contrarian just for the sake of stirring the pot or getting people into a state of anger. In fact, I try as often as I can to ignore the extreme negatives and positives you can find everywhere on the internet and continue to just form my own opinion about movies, which is the way everyone should do it (then you can have more fun later discussing things with those who agree, and those who don't).

So I didn't make the decision lightly to label the much-loved Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the worst film directed by either of the McDonagh brothers. You have to remember two things here. First of all, I am one of the few people who really enjoyed War On Everyone. Second, I am not saying this is a terrible film. It's still better than Transformers: The Last Knight, for example. Just not by that much.

The plot revolves around Frances McDormand's character, Mildred. She has been waiting too long to get any justice after her daughter was raped and murdered. So she decides to use three billboards situated on a fairly quiet road to question the work ethic of Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). This upsets Willoughby and his staff (particularly the dim and abusive Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell), it upsets Mildred's son (Lucas Hedges), and it starts to turn the town against Mildred as they fail to understand why she would make such a statement.

The performances in this film are, for the most part, pretty great. McDormand does brilliant work, Rockwell is as great as ever, and Harrelson does well (when he isn't delivering lines in voiceover like he's reading the back of a packet of Coco Pops). Caleb Landry Jones is also very good, playing the lad responsible for leasing out the billboard space, Hedges is excellent as the teenage son watching his mother make a stand he doesn't see as being of any use, Peter Dinklage is a lot of fun as someone hoping to take Mildred out on a date, and John Hawkes is an a-grade asshole. The main weakness in the film is Abbie Cornish, who gives what feels like a half-hearted performance, hampered by the fact that she is also given the worst of the dialogue in the film and just seems far too young for her character (she plays the wife of Harrelson's character).

Direction is good enough, with McDonagh really pulling out the stops in a couple of moments that hammer home (almost literally) some of the damage that characters are willing to inflict upon one another, and there's definitely an interesting theme being clumsily explored here, but it's all almost undone by the script, surprisingly enough. While there are gems here, especially in the scenes that have McDormand interacting directly with the local law enforcement, there are also lines that drop in the middle of scenes like anvils looking for a Wile E. Coyote to squash into an accordion shape. And that's just individual lines I am talking about (poor Cornish, I felt genuinely sorry for a couple of the lines that she had to deliver, which could have only been made a bit less cringeworthy if McDonagh had given her any decent characterisation beforehand). As the film starts to develop in the overlong second half, everything starts to become more heavy-handed and also a bit, well, implausible and ridiculous. What began as a small, impactful, drama turns into something that feels unsure of how far it wants to take things, and in what direction it wants to go. Yes, this is in line with the main characters but it doesn't feel deliberate or well thought out. It feels careless, displaced, and even rather immature.

There's enough here to enjoy, and I feel sorry for those trying to dismiss the movie as something it isn't (I can't say any more because of spoilers), and I still encourage people to support the McDonagh brothers ahead of so many other writers and directors who never try to engage and challenge their audience, but this didn't work half as well for me as it seems to have worked for so many others.

6/10


Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Bill Nighy has, let's face it, been making a lot of people happy by playing what we all consider a version of Bill Nighy onscreen for the past couple of decades. He's the elderly gent with a wry sense of humour, ready to give us a wink before heading off to the dancefloor with a crowd of youngsters who have embraced his good company. He's basically the cool uncle at a wedding party, although that means you sometimes roll your eyes when he shows up because you know he's going to be there a bit too long, might still be wearing jeans when they don't suit him, and will probably ask the DJ for a bit of Whigfield near the end of the night. Some people will always enjoy those moments, whereas some people will start to feel bitter about him. I am in the former camp, but I can see why people may start falling into the latter camp.

Why have I started this review with that rambling, poor, analogy about an uncle at a wedding party? Well, The Limehouse Golem is an interesting and surprising film for many reasons, but the main one may be what a great lead role it hands to Bill Nighy. And he does so well with it that you are reminded of how talented the man is. Like meeting that cool uncle during the week, when he is in between meetings during a typically busy work day. The fun aspect of him is just that, one aspect.

Anyway, let me get to the film itself. Directed by Juan Carlos Medina, who previously gave us Painless AKA Insensibles, this is a very dark murder mystery, so bloody on the odd occasion that most horror fans should be kept happy enough, set during a time in London not that far removed from the exploits of Jack The Ripper. Indeed, this feels very much like a Jack The Ripper film in all but name. It's based on a book by Peter Ackroyd, and the script was written by Jane Goldman (possibly her best work), but I have no idea if the source material tries to make things more or less . . . "Ripper-esque".

Nighy plays John Kildare, a lawman tasked with solving the series of murders perpetrated by a mysterious figure people have taken to referring to as The Limehouse Golem. Kildare is a man who has already had his reputation questioned, due to his perceived aversion to female company, and he knows that he has been given this case as a pretty hopeless endeavour. He will take the expected fall if no culprit is caught. Olivia Cooke plays Lizzie Cree, a woman put on trial for the crime of poisoning her husband, and the two tales quickly intertwine as Kildare starts to suspect that helping Lizzie may actually help him solve the case. He believes that she knows something she doesn't want to reveal to the public, a secret she may end up taking to the grave if she is found guilty, and he wants to gain her trust, learn her full story, and kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Nighy is just great in all of his scenes here. He doesn't overdo things, this isn't a role looking to squeeze comedy out of his usual demeanour and mannerisms, and viewers get to stick close to him and his appointed assistant (Daniel Mays) as clues are uncovered and witnesses questioned. Cooke is also excellent, allowed much more screentime as the investigation delves deeper and deeper into her life story. Douglas Booth and Sam Reid both do well, playing men in Lizzie's life, and also suspects in the case (the latter is the murdered husband - no spoiler, that is how the film begins), and you also get enjoyable performances from Eddie Marsan and Maria Valverde.

Every aspect of this production is polished and handled with care. Medina brings everything together beautifully, with impressive camerawork throughout allowing viewers to be fully immersed in the world depicted onscreen. It's grimy and gorgeous at the same time, with impressive sound design and an effective score also helping, yet none of the details or flourishes ever detract from the performances that sell every scene. The structure may disappoint some - shock opener, a hefty middle section full of characterisation and details, fairly swift resolution - but it will work well for those who don't need jumps or set-pieces every 10-15 minutes. Sometimes the joy is in the destination, sometimes in the journey. The joy here is in both.

Goldman deserves a decent amount of praise for her script. It's masterful in the handling of the characters, with plenty of ambiguity throughout to keep viewers guessing the identity of the killer, alongside Kildare. And I must say, as slow as I can sometimes be with movies like this, I was very impressed by the finale.

I am sure that many sharper viewers will be unsurprised by anything the film delivers, and it does enough to allow you to be one or two steps ahead of the main characters, but I loved how it was put together, and I was also surprised by one or two moments throughout. Highly recommended.

9/10

You can get The Limehouse Golem here on bluray.
Or here, Americanos.


Saturday, 13 January 2018

Logan Lucky (2017)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring a cast of many familiar faces. Focusing on a big robbery. You could easily forgive the many reviewers who decided to describe this film as a blue-collar take on Ocean's Eleven. That's, basically, what it is.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a working Joe who finds out that he has to be let go by his employers, currently working on a job at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He's also upset by the news that his ex is about to move further away, making it tougher for him to have time with his daughter. So he visits the bar run by his brother (Adam Driver, his character is also a veteran who lost a hand in the war) and starts to formulate a plan to rob the Speedway. The plan relies on a number of skilled individuals, including a safecracker (Daniel Craig) who is currently serving time in prison. Do they actually have a chance of pulling this thing off?

Considering this is the kind of thing that Soderbergh has mastered over the past couple of decades, Logan Lucky is enjoyable enough, but also not as enjoyable as it could be. Unlike other Soderbergh ensemble films, few of the supporting characters make as good an impression as you'd expect. It's a major plus that Tatum, Driver and Craig make a very entertaining trio of leads, otherwise this might have been a complete bust.

The main problem lies with the script, written by a Rebecca Blunt (although the identity of the writer has been question by people who think it may be a pseudonym), which is never that funny, and also doesn't really feel that neat when it comes to the mechanics of the robbery. That may be the point, this isn't a group of smooth operators doing what comes naturally, but a heist movie still needs you to believe in the skill of those performing the main act, which doesn't happen here.

As well as the cast members already mentioned, who do great work, you also get performances from Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, and quite a few others. Keough and Holmes do as well as they can with their characters, while MacFarlane struggles to make his unnecessary character work at all (not his fault).

There's fun to be had here, in the performances and some of the dialogue. You just can't help feeling that, especially considering everyone involved on both sides of the camera, it should be a lot more fun.

6/10

Logan Lucky is available to buy here.
Or, if you're in America, get it here.


Friday, 12 January 2018

Goon: Last Of The Enforcers (2017)

I liked Goon. It was a sweet film that happened to also feature a lot of bone-crunching violence, and it featured a superb central performance from Seann William Scott. Goon: Last Of The Enforcers is, although some (many?) may disagree, a superior sequel.

It's been a while since we last saw Doug Glatt (Scott). He's grown older but not that much wiser, although now nice and settled at home with Eva (Alison Pill), still putting up with the drunken antics of his friend Pat (Jay Baruchel), and still taking a hell of a beating out on the ice, when he needs to. Things come to a head when he is set upon by a vicious player named Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell), leading him to try and leave hockey behind for the sake of his health and Eva's peace of mind.

As well as returning to the role of Pat, Baruchel also co-wrote the script with Jesse Chabot. Obviously wanting to heap a bit more onto his plate, Baruchel has decided to make this his feature directorial debut, which makes sense considering how well he seems to know the characters and small world created in the first film. He certainly does a better job behind the camera than he does in front of it. It's been a while since I watched the first film but I can't recall his character being quite so idiotic, although I could be wrong.

Scott continues to make the most of the opportunity that this lead role affords him. He's dim, but not a complete idiot, and he does get a chance to grow somewhat. Russell is a great addition to the roster of characters, showing almost a mirror universe version of Doug. He's a man who wants to spill blood and break bones, his passion is for the fight ahead of the game or the team, and he's genuinely confused when others don't seem to approach the sport with the same attitude. Liev Schreiber returns, as Ross Rhea, and once again proves to be an excellent illustration of what Doug may potentially have lying ahead of him. Pill does well with her relatively thankless role (as ultimately understanding as she is, I am sure some will view her as just the moaning wife), and Kim Coates and Callum Keith Rennie stand out as two men who want to run the ice hockey team two very different ways.

Although it runs through just as many sports movie cliches as the first film, Goon: Last Of The Enforcers at least uses a new bag of old tricks (if that makes sense). There are a couple of mis-steps - with the main ones being the waste of Baruchel in the actual acting department, and the equal waste of Elisha Cuthbert in a small role - but those aren't significant enough to stop this from being a perfect follow-up to a film that I never would have considered in need of a sequel.

8/10

Pick it up on DVD for a bargain price here.
Or, in America, get it the bluray here.



Thursday, 11 January 2018

Beyond Skyline (2017)

Remember when Skyline came out? Remember how many people agreed that it looked great, especially considering the budget, but was really didn't have anything more going for it? Which perhaps explains why Beyond Skyline now comes along as one of the most unexpected, and unwanted (for many), sci-fi sequels in recent years.

It was even more surprising when people heard that it would star Frank Grillo, Iko Uwais, and Yayan Ruhian (the latter two most famous just now for their roles in The Raid movies). But could it pull off the ultimate surprise move and turn out to be a good film?

The plot concerns the same alien invasion that we saw during the first film. We're just seeing things from a different perspective this time. Grillo is Mark, a tough detective who starts the film picking up his son (Trent, played by Jonny Weston) from jail. When all hell breaks loose, Mark tries to protect Trent from the alien invaders. And so begins a tale that will throw some hardy humans together with some advanced tech that may just help them defeat the aliens, or may just delay the inevitable as Earth is overpowered and drained.

Written and directed by Liam O'Donnell (co-writer of the first movie), Beyond Skyline is a film that certainly seeks to make up for the failings of the first instalment. If the first film had nothing much beyond the great FX work, this one wants to throw in a whole boat-load of new ideas. Taking the key moment from the end of the first film as a starting point, it naturally progresses things in a way that could have worked well if O'Donnell wasn't determined to expand everything at the same time: the scale, the cast of characters, the implausibility, the wavering focus of the film.

The fact that Frank Grillo must be used to being wasted in the few main roles he gets doesn't make it any easier to see him wasted once again. He's a good choice for the role, and easily the best thing in the film, but his character is almost rendered invisible by everything that's going on around him, both in terms of onscreen activity and the frantic plotting. Bojana Novakovic is similarly wasted, given the deep and resonant character of . . . female. Weston isn't onscreen for that long, which is something you could also say of Uwais and Ruhian. Both of those impressive fighters get one or two decent moments, but it's really too little too late when you think of the movie that could have been built around their skillset. At least Antonio Fargas does as well as he can with his small role.

A lot of people have enjoyed this movie more than I did, and it's definitely a better attempt to work a plot into the special effects this time around. But just because it's better than the first film doesn't make it a good film. The flaws drag this down to average, at best. It's a mess, there's nobody to really care for (despite having more characters to choose from), and any sequel to a film starring Brittany Daniel loses a point for not bringing back Brittany Daniel. That's my rule anyway.

5/10

Buy the bluray here.
Or, in America, buy it here.


Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Rough Night (2017)

2017 ended up being the year in which we had two big cinema releases focusing on women getting together and letting their hair down. But where Girls Trip may have tried to play the premise with a surprising emphasis on some more dramatic moments, Rough Night is content to just go for the laughs, with fleeting emotional moments doled out as and when the character development needs to be prodded to the next point.

Scarlett Johansson plays Jess, a young woman about to get married. She's also hoping to become an elected official, although this is in doubt as too many members of the public don't find her that appealing. She is behind the polls to a man who accidentally sent out a dick pic. He apologised, but only while sending out another dick pic that was obviously intended to go out the first time around. So it's no wonder that Jess is looking forward to some fun with her friends, played by Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon (playing an Australian who is unfamiliar with the rest of the group). Unfortunately, it doesn't take that long for someone to go and accidentally kill the male stripper who was hired as entertainment. Which means the fun plans have to be altered to body disposal plans. And hilarity ensues. Perhaps.

With a plot that seems to mix Bridesmaids and Very Bad Things (without the spiralling chain of deaths), Rough Night isn't going to claim any points for originality. Everyone involved seems to know this, with every main sequence played out almost exactly as you'd expect, but that's not a bad thing when the aim is always to simply amuse and entertain viewers.

Director Lucia Aniello, who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul W. Downs (also starring as Johansson's husband-to-be), makes her feature debut, and shows that she's a safe pair of hands for this kind of material. Keeping the whole thing at just about 100 minutes, Aniello and Downs know just how to pitch the elements that could seem distasteful in clumsier hands (the main death, a plot point that hinges on someone getting themselves involved with a pair of swingers, even the ongoing strand that shows Downs driving across the country, wired on energy drinks and wearing an adult diaper, as he frets that his fiance may no longer love him), and they give

Glazer and Kravitz may be the weakest of the leads, although it's safe to say that they're not given very much to work with at all, but that doesn't matter when you have Bell and McKinnon bickering at one another fine style, and Johansson trying to remain calm and level-headed throughout the escalating madness. Downs is also very good in his scenes, given some fun support from Bo Burnham in a cameo role, and Ty Burrell and Demi Moore have fun in the couple of scenes they're given.

It's not great, it's entirely predictable (seriously, if you can't see how the third act is going to pan out then I assume you have avoided every mainstream cinema release since the mid-1970s), but it still manages to be funny enough to make it a decent prospect to accompany some snacks and the beverage of your choice.

6/10

Rough Night is available to purchase here.
Or here, in the land of stars and stripes.


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Girls Trip (2017)

The very basic premise of Girls Trip is a group of four friends getting back together to enjoy some leisure time that will include drinking, dancing, rekindling their sex drive, and a few arguments as they grow apart before maybe coming closer together. It's nothing we haven't seen before. The main twist here is that one of the group (Ryan Pierce, played by Regina Hall) is successful and famous, which makes the waters a lot trickier to navigate when her friends - played by Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish - start to suspect there may be a bit of trouble in her seemingly perfect marriage (to Stewart, played by Mike Colter).

Despite one or two very enjoyable moments, including an absolutely hilarious sequence in which the girls try to act normally while under the influence of hallucination-inducing substances aka tripping balls, Girls Trip is quite disappointing as a comedy. The script, by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, could have easily trimmed down one or two characters, and one more set-piece to rival the hallucinatory sequence would have been enough to push this above average. A few decent lines here and there don't do enough to make this consistently amusing.

Director Malcolm D. Lee doesn't add anything of note. His work is capable enough, following the predictable script almost to the letter (it would seem), and he tends to just have faith in his leading ladies. Which would be a wise choice if they were all on the same level.

I like Regina Hall. A lot. I always have, and think I always will. I have also been a big fan of every performance I have seen from Queen Latifah. So I enjoyed both of them in this film. And it was a bonus that Hall is actually given a few excellent, and unexpected, moments to show just how good she can act, especially in the second half of the film. Smith and Haddish, on the other hand, just don't work as well. It's not that they're terrible, and the earlier scenes with Haddish arranging her leave from work are actually very funny, but they're just nowhere near as watchable or charismatic as the other two. Colter does well in the bad man role, Larenz Tate doesn't get that much screentime as a nice guy, and Kate Walsh does a lot with her small role, playing a white woman who tries to act and speak like the rest of the group, despite other people explaining that it's not something she can really make work.

Far from terrible, it's just a shame that Girls Trip rarely has enough laughs throughout. Which is always a mark against something being sold as a comedy.

5/10

You can buy Girls Trip here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Monday, 8 January 2018

Stormy Monday (1988)

A 1980s British crime thriller that puts a man unwittingly in the middle of escalating events between some violent gangsters and American businessmen. And the title incorporates a day of the week. I'm not saying that Stormy Monday seems designed, in places, to ride along on the coat tails of the legendary The Long Good Friday, but there are certainly some interesting similarities, although the whole thing being set in the North of England, as opposed to London, is enough to give it quite a different general flavour.

Young Sean Bean is the man who ends up in the middle of a messy situation. He's working for a man named Finney (Sting), he ends up entangled with a woman named Kate (Melanie Griffith), and he's really a spanner in the works for people like Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones), a VIP from America, and a pair of thugs (one played by James Cosmo).

This is the feature debut from Mike Figgis, who both wrote and directed the movie, and it's an interesting and strange piece of work. While it is perhaps a bit too beholden to the film it hews closest to, Figgis also shows a confidence in his own material, never feeling an urge to rush things along or make the infrequent moments of violence feel too cool or glamorous. He takes his time with all of the main characters, good and bad, and keeps a lot of different parts moving smoothly as the plot winds towards the finale.

Unfortunately, due to the deliberately slow pacing, the film doesn't really ever feel as tense as it should. Nothing really builds up, instead simply moving from one event to the next. To use a clumsy metaphor, Stormy Monday shows you a lot of separate explosions without ever showing you the fuse burning down.

The cast help to make things better though. Sean Bean is believable as the fresh-faced new lad in town, willing to take any job going as he gets back on his feet. Griffith is appealing enough, I've never been her biggest fan but the moments between her and Bean show just enough chemistry to make their relationship believable. Tommy Lee Jones is solid, Sting is okay, and everyone else does just fine, particularly a youngish Cosmo exuding a real sense of menace.

You can look around and find many better movies than this one, whether you want a better Figgis film, a better British thriller, or even a better film featuring a performance from any of the leads. But that doesn't make this film unworthy of your time. It's an interesting, fun, curio that places these names alongside one another, and also features some Roger Deakins cinematography.

6/10

Pick Stormy Monday up on bluray here.
Americanos can get it here.


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Leatherface (2017)

There are some people that like Leatherface, the . . . . eighth instalment in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise (unless I have miscounted). Some people liked Texas Chainsaw. Some people like iced coffees. And pineapple on pizza. And these are the people that I will sit and silently glare at. Yes, ALL of them.

Once again attempting to show audiences the "birth" of Leatherface, this is arguably the tamest film yet for the franchise. There are a few good gore moments, I won't deny it, but it all lacks a certain edge, instead opting to give us a plot that's typical "criminals on the loose" fare, with the addition of an attempted rug pull so entirely predictable that it wouldn't even fool either of my two cats, even if they were watching the film while catnipped out of their tiny cat minds.

Most of the cast do a decent job, despite having such weak material to work with. The youngsters include Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Sam Coleman, James Bloor, and Jessica Madsen. None of them make a very strong impression, but they're only really there so we can find out when the chainsaw was first put to good use. As for the adults, Lili Taylor does the coddling mama act just fine, Stephen Dorff is excellent as an angry lawman who might be confusing revenge with justice, and Finn Jones is present in some scenes.

Written by Seth M. Sherwood, the script is even more forgettable than so many other insipid horror vehicles from recent years. Some very minute characterisations help, and the opening and closing sequences are better than anything we have to muddle through in the middle, but it's certainly not enough to keep you caring, even for what should be quite a perfect runtime.

Sherwood at least has the excuse of inexperience, which cannot be said for the talented co-directors, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. Inside and Livid are two of the finest French horror movies from this first part of the 21st century. How the two decided that this project would be a good use of their time and energy is beyond me. It isn't, and their considerable talents are hidden so deep here as to be practically invisible.

Completists will watch this film. Fans who believe that "the saw is family" will watch this film. Undemanding horror fans will watch this film. But I suspect it is only the last group that will end up enjoying it. It's a below average film, hence my rating (as generous as it is), but it's a TERRIBLE Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie.

4/10

Buy Leatherface here, if you must.
Buy it here if you're in America.


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Detroit (2017)

Based on a true incident that happened in Detroit in 1967, Detroit is an intense, infuriating, engrossing return to top form for Kathryn Bigelow, a director I have always enjoyed, despite not loving her past few projects as much as many other people.

Things kick off with a police raid on a club that leads to a riot. African Americans feel, quite rightly, that they are being unduly picked on by authorities. With rocks being thrown, stores being looted, and properties being vandalised, it's not long until permission is given to back up the police with the National Guard and Army bods. Against this backdrop of racial tension, the members of a vocal group on the verge of great success decide to relax and party in their hotel. Someone mucking about at the party decides that they will have fun with a starter gun . . . and that is when things really start to go downhill. The police surround, and enter, the building. And they're not leaving without being satisfed by their own level of justice.

As mentioned in the film itself, this isn't a 100% factual representation. It's a depiction of an event provided after sifting through a variety of conflicting accounts of what happened on that night. But it certainly feels as if writer Mark Boal doesn't ever veer too far away from the truth. Whether things were twisted to make them more cinematic or not, this is a masterclass in character sketches, ratcheting tension, and how to shade morally bankrupt figures without making them seem completely inhuman.

Bigelow has been working with material this tense for some time, with moments of The Hurt Locker being the most obvious example, and she's a dab hand at it (to say the least). Those scenes dealt with physical explosives. Detroit focuses on a situation that viewers know could explode at any moment. Things are bad, but everyone involved knows that one wrong move could make things a hell of a lot worse.

It helps that the cast are all very much up to the task in hand. Algee Smith and Anthony Mackie are two of the main men being held by the police, with the latter a war veteran who prompts one or two individuals to consider changing their tack. John Boyega is on the scene, a security guard torn between his duties as an employee and his desire to resolve the whole situation peacefully without anyone being beaten or shot. And Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and Ben O'Toole are the three main officers dictating how the whole scenario will play out. Reynor and O'Toole are both very good, but it's the sheer disgust coming out of the very pores of Poulter that overshadows everything else. His performance is excellent, as discomforting and scary as anything you might see in a mainstream horror movie.

It's a great shame that none of the events depicted in Detroit feel any less believable nowadays. We should be watching this in state of incredulity, shocked at what was once acceptable but has since become a rarity. And the fact that it's not hard to believe adds another layer to the whole experience. It's not comfortable, it's not pleasant, but it's one of the best films of 2017.

9/10

Order your copy of Detroit here.
USA people - get it here.


Friday, 5 January 2018

Dead Or Alive: Final (2002)

Although Dead Or Alive: Final isn't a terrible movie, it's a disappointing end to what could have been a wonderful trilogy from Takashi Miike. Having said that, it at least feels like it belongs here. As flawed as it is, it's almost an inevitable destination for such a strange journey.

Riki Takeuchi and Sho Aikawa return, this time playing a cop and a wandering android, respectively. The setting is a post-apocalyptic future, the two main characters find themselves struggling with their very natures and roles (Takeuchi's cop is working on the orders of someone who may not be all he seems), and that's really all there is to it.

Seriously, that's about it. You get a few fight scenes, there's one twist that doesn't feel that impressive, and none of the characters make much of an impression. Notice that I didn't specify the supporting characters. I mean NONE of the characters. Takeuchi and Aikawa are completely wasted here, only able to shine through in a limited selection of moments in which the material doesn't keep them suffocated.

I didn't even mention the writers in my reviews of the previous Dead Or Alive instalments because, despite the occasional strength of the scripts (particularly in the second film), each film felt very much like a Miike film. This doesn't, which means fewer enjoyable elements to distract from the rather weak script.

Perhaps he was just desperate to finish the trilogy, perhaps he really thought there was a good story hidden away at the centre of this thing, or perhaps he created something that just didn't manage to appeal to my sensibilities in the way that the other films did. Whatever his reasons, Miike takes the potential playground of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi film and continues to keep the focus on the relationship between the two leads. In some ways, it's a typically impressive and bravura Miike move, but in other ways it leaves this film feeling like an inferior rehash of themes and ideas explored in the preceding instalments.

6/10

Buy the trilogy here.


Thursday, 4 January 2018

Dead Or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

I've probably mentioned this before, many times, but my introduction to Takashi Miike came in a bit of a triple punch to the gut. I can't remember the exact order, even if I have previously named a title as my definitive first ever Miike, but it was a dizzying mix of the horror of Audition, the insane nastiness of Ichi The Killer (as butchered by the BBFC as it was/is), and the blistering opening salvo of Dead Or Alive. I then followed that up with the likes of Visitor Q, The Happiness Of The Katakuris, and managed to see clips of Gozu.

Those are all representative of Miike movies at the turn of the 21st century, but only in the way they show his wild and varied approach to subject matters. What they don't really show is the heart and maturity that can be seen in a film like this one, the second of the very loose trilogy (basically only connected by the titles and leads), and how he can do a hell of a lot with fairly limited resources.

The plot of Dead Or Alive 2: Birds is quite simple, really. Two hitmen (played by Riki Takeuchi and Sho Aikawa) cross paths, realise that they were friends as children, and head back to visit the orphanage on an island community that helped to raise them. They then decide to use their deadly skills to help get money for the orphanage, a decision that doesn't sit too well with the gangsters who had previously been profiting from the specified kills.

Although there are still little fantastical flourishes here and there, this is a much more grounded film than the hyper-stylized Dead Or Alive. The first film was about morality, shaded and complex as it can be. It was about good versus evil, taken to an enjoyably ridiculous conclusion, but it also spent a lot of time wallowing in the criminal underworld. It made viewers feel unpleasant, in need of a shower. This film, while it certainly looks at good versus evil, explores the grey middle ground even further. Bad deeds can be done for many reasons, but are they still essentially bad deeds if the outcome ends up being so good? Is redemption available to those who can't fully change their nature? Can reconnecting to your more innocent youth reconnect you to your more innocent soul? All, or none, of these things might go through your head while watching this surprisingly emotional look at two jaded men potentially saved by the memories of when they were just two young boys.

The performances from all involved are very good, with Takeuchi and Aikawa giving their best turns in the trilogy. But, even more so than the lead performances, the overall atmosphere of this film is something to be displayed as exhibit A when anyone tries to dismiss Miike as nothing more than a dealer in violence and shocks. You can almost feel the sunshine and smell the surrounding countryside during the many scenes that show the leads in their youth, remembered in that sun-hazed nostalgia that affects so many of us when we strive to remember long lost years that were wasted in playtime before we knew anything of adult responsibilities or stresses.

It still falls short of being perfect, in different ways from the first film, but this remains a beautiful and resonant work that still needs to be seen by a LOT more people.

8/10

Buy the trilogy here.


Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Dead Or Alive (1999)

Takashi Miike has spent the last quarter of a century making a LOT of movies. And, in between 1999 and 2002 (approximately), his profile was considerably raised in America and Europe with a selection of unforgettable, and astonishing, works. Films such as Audition (still perhaps his finest hour, for me anyway), Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q, The Happiness Of The Katakuris, and the Dead Or Alive trilogy. Miike was clearly someone worth watching, even if he often placed scenes in his movies that were tough to watch.

Dead Or Alive, at its core, is a very basic film about warring criminal factions and the cop trying to clean things up. There’s a large cast of supporting players, and a number of disturbing vignettes, but the focus ends up on a gangster named Ryuuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and the man who ends up undoing his plans (Sho Aikawa, as Detective Jojima). These two men move through a narrative that allows them to show the shading of their character before finally attempting to paint them as opposing black and white pieces in a winner-take-all endgame.

To call the opening 5+ minute opening sequence of Dead Or Alive blistering is pretty accurate. But anyone who has yet to see the film should be made aware that this is REALLY blistering. It’s an audio-visual assault on your senses, and I’m not using that phrase to be hyperbolic. You get gunfire, dancing, sodomy, drug deals, arterial spray, one hell of a long line of cocaine being snorted, a rocking track overlaying everything, and lots of noodles. The entire sequence sets up the tone of the film, although viewers will undoubtedly breathe a huge sigh of relief when Miike starts to slow things down to a more bearable pace.

Of course, the slowing down of the pace of the movie also means that the unpleasantness, when it occurs, is onscreen for longer. Whether it’s a maker of pornography trying to set up a very twisted scene for a niche market or a drugged-out woman lying around in a small pool full of . . . . . . . well, I’ll let you see for yourself. Even the hardiest of viewers may find their stomach churning on occasion.

And while you could make the valid point that so much of what unfolds here is pointlessly shocking just for the sake of it, you could also argue that Miike, and/or writer Ichiro Ryu, is deliberately railing against a cinematic tradition of cool Japanese killers. Handsome leading men who order clean, swift murders, and who act within a strict code of honour. I may be reading too much into things, and Miike has made films with his fair share of cool killers too, but it almost feels as if this movie deliberately forces viewers to look into the cesspool that violent crime can inhabit. By exaggerating things, by making moments so repugnant that you can almost smell something rotten while the film is running, Miike seems to be using the material to teach us all a lesson about glamorising a lifestyle most of us will hopefully never see outside the edges of a movie screen.

8/10

Order the trilogy here.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Bright (2017)

People have been rushing to call Bright one of the worst films of 2017. It's not. It's not even the worst thing that Netflix have done. Not by a long shot. It's not even the worst thing that director David Ayer has done. People have also been rushing to call this out as a reworking of Alien Nation. Okay, that's a bit harder to deny. Essentially a blend of Alien Nation, Training Day, and World Of Warcraft, this is a messy, fun film. It gets a number of things wrong, but also gets quite a bit right.

Will Smith plays a cop named Daryl Ward, unhappy because he's been paired up with an orc (Jakoby, played by Joel Edgerton). He's also unhappy because he's about to go back into service after recovering from a gunshot wound, a wound perpetrated by a criminal that he believes his unwanted partner let go free. That has to be pushed to the bottom of his list of priorities, however, when the pair find themselves getting their hands on a magical artefact that lots of people are willing to kill for.

What works well here? Well, if you buy into the main conceit (life going on as usual in a world that happens to also have elves, orcs, fairies, etc living alongside humans), most of it. I am pleased to see that, with this and Suicide Squad, Ayer has convinced Smith to once again spend some time in roles that work well with his charisma and cockiness. He isn't stretching himself here but he's suited to the role. Edgerton is even better, despite working through a load of make up that makes him unrecognisable. The world that the two inhabit is nicely realised, with a lot of minor details and casual snippets of dialogue helping to flesh things out. There are also some really good action beats. Perhaps not as many as it needs, but the set-pieces are very well done.

What doesn't work? Well, the script by Max Landis seems eager to throw as much into the pot as possible, which is especially obvious in a few opening scenes that overstay their welcome before the film starts to find its feet. There's also one major moment that is lifted almost completely from Training Day. It felt like a bit of a push then, it feels even more implausible here.

And you also have a supporting cast that feels largely wasted. Noomi Rapace has a good presence, she's the main villain of the piece, but it would have been nice to see her pop up for more than just a few scenes in the second half of the film. As for the other police officers we see here and there, none of them make an impression, even when involved in some pretty major scenes.

If you like Ayer movies then you should like this. Despite the characters and plot incorporating a number of fantastical elements, this is typical of his kind of stuff. Of course, some people may not enjoy his sensibilities being mixed up with orcs and elves and the like. I found it worked surprisingly well. I am already looking forward to the sequel - Fantastic Beasts And How To F**k Them Up.

7/10

Bright is on Netflix. Other David Ayer movies are available here (UK) and here (USA)


Monday, 1 January 2018

2017: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.


Yes, it's that time again. Well, considering how many of these things you will have seen already, it seems to be way beyond that time.

2017 was a crazy year, in so many ways. Personally, it was the first time I attended the Edinburgh International Film Festival as a non-press attendee (although I still tried to cram in just as many viewings). I also managed to finally see Lawrence Of Arabia. On the big screen. In 70mm. NEVER pass that up, if you ever get the chance. I also became part of a podcast, available here, and fired up this here blog again, as you might have noticed (and thank you to all who have noticed).

But those things were but a drop in the cinematic ocean. The tidal wave that drenced us all was the way in which many Hollywood heavyweights were exposed (no pun intended) towards the end of this year as manipulative abusers. These people were allowed to act on their worst impulses for so long due to an environment of privilege and fear, and the inaction of too many people who mistakenly assumed that isolated incidents were exactly as they appeared to be. On the small plus side, this could lead to what we can only hope is a major change in the attitudes and behaviours towards women throughout ALL sections of society.

I don't have the time, space, and smarts to cover that subject here in the way it needs covered, but it's impossible to discuss the cinematic landscape of 2017 without at least mentioning it, and without at least commending the bravery of all of those who have come forward so far, and everyone still doing their bit to bring about change, from within the system and without.

I don't really enjoy squishing favoured movies into actual numerical positions, but I'll do my best. Oh, and films I have yet to see, because they might have made the list, include the following: The Handmaiden (it's on my shelf, no excuse), Logan Lucky (which I am sure will be appearing on this blog soon enough), Detroit (also appearing here very soon, I hope), The Florida Project, Battle Of The Sexes, and The Last Jedi. I am just one man, even if I try to watch more movies than everyone else I know. Without any further ado, here are ten quite excellent moving pictures.

10. La La Land. I mean . . . Moonlight. Okay, I loved both equally. And that Best Picture balls up at the 2017 Academy Awards only served to make the two quite inseparable in my mind, despite being two very different films.


9. Hidden Figures. More simplistically enjoyable than either of the two films mentioned above, Hidden Figures used a light touch and flawless cast to tell a great story about a number of the unsung heroes of NASA, who not only battled to keep people alive in space but also battled for the basic right to things like being able to use the same bathroom as their work colleagues and being allowed to share use of the coffee-maker.


8. Bad Day For The Cut. The first film on this list that may not be that well-known to many, this is a superb Irish crime thriller, adding a dash of pitch-black humour to keep things from being too bleak and unbearable.


7. My Pure Land. Based on a rather remarkable true story, this is part siege flick and part cultural exploration (set in Pakistan, where land disputes are common and solved in both legal and not-so-legal ways). Some may wish for a film that stays in one camp or the other, but the whole thing makes for a great blend of tension, anger, and even something slightly educational.


6. Baby Driver. The full review is here.


5. Get Out. A freaky horror movie that builds so nicely that a) you end up buying into a rather outlandish - although deliciously old-fashioned and demented - premise, and b) you start to notice so many great little touches that a rewatch is desired as soon as the end credits roll. Superb stuff.


4. Thor: Ragnarok. Amazing. Little could I have realised that when I grudgingly watched Thor a few years ago, and ended up enjoying it, that the third movie in the series would a) come along after one of the worst films in the new MCU, and b) end up being one of my favourite movies of the year.
All of the regular players return, and do well, and there's plenty of enjoyment to be had watching Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, and Rachel House having fun with their roles.
But the star here is director Taika Waititi (who also voices the funniest character in the film, Korg. Waititi has crafted a Marvel movie that manages to provide spectacle while consistently deflating all of the superhero movie tropes. This is a blockbuster that has more in common with the films of Astron-6 than anything else we have seen from Marvel, including the fantastic Guardians Of The Galaxy (and I will be surprised if we are not inundated with reviews titled "Thor: Asgardians Of The Galaxy"). Calling to mind the past glories of fantastical '80s movies, yet providing one or two moments that gave me proper goosebumps, Thor: Ragnarok overcomes a few minor flaws to put itself right near the top of the MCU tree.


3. Dunkirk. This was, without a doubt, my best cinema experience for a 2017 movie release. 70 mm. That Hans Zimmer score. The mastery of Nolan's craftmanship. He'd lost my goodwill over the past few years. Dunkirk gained it all back.

 

2. The Big Sick. Full review is here.


1. T2: Trainspotting. It was the sequel that many of us were dreading, but director Danny Boyle and his returning cast quickly reassured viewers that we needn't have worried. Some complained about the callbacks to the first movie, kind of missing one of the main points of the film, but many others viewed it as a perfect blend of the old and the new. The old applied to the characters, with most having grown in different ways since the first film, and the new was the world around them, a world that had moved so quickly from "choose life" to "click like". This was a chance for an audience and characters to reflect on their journeys through life together that resonated even more strongly than the Toy Story trilogy for many of us Scots. It was our Toy Story experience. With a lot more drugs, and sex-based blackmail, and violence. But both films feature a scene-stealing Woody.


Other major titles worth mentioning include the wonderfully insane mother!, the visual gorgeousness of Blade Runner 2049, Gerald's Game on Netflix, a fun horror comedy by the name of Double Date, The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Prevenge, Free Fire, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, and Wonder Woman. Lots of people raved about War For The Planet Of The Apes. I didn't. But it was quite good.

As for the films to avoid from the year just gone by, many will rush to tell you that The Emoji Movie was the worst of the worst. It wasn't. It just didn't do enough to get away from the cynical core of that main premise. If you wanted to see something worse, however, you had to delve deep to find the likes of Kuso, Aliens Vs Titanic, and Mother Krampus. Much better than these films, technically, but stupendously bad in some other ways, you could also see how you feel after watching Alien: Covenant or Transformers: The Last Knight. I disliked both intensely, even if neither could ever be seriously called the very worst of the worst.

And let's squeeze in just a little bit of TV talk. Considering some people have listed it as a favourite movie choice, it would be downright silly to pass up a chance to celebrate Twin Peaks: The Return. Simultaneously teasing fans and also giving everyone what they really wanted, even if they didn't realise it at the time, Lynch made a triumphant return to the world that was fractured by the death of Laura Palmer and he may just have created the most mind-blowingly amazing thing we will ever see on TV. I try to avoid hyperbole, and I don't like to throw the word "genius" around when it's undeserved, but Lynch might just be deserving of both.


I hope 2017 was good to you. If not, I hope 2018 is better. If it was, I hope 2018 is better. Happy New Year. Unfortunately, you may just have me appearing here every day again for the foreseeable future.


No individual links here, but if you want to go here (UK folks) or here (US folks) then anything you buy will end up getting me some nice bloggy bonus points.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Strange Days (1995)

Although it may seem a bit dated now, with the action thriller cliches piled up and the focus on that Y2K sensation, Strange Days is yet another superior film from director Kathryn Bigelow. And it gets very dark indeed.

Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, an ex-cop who now makes a living selling experiences. Actual experiences. There's a gadget you can put on your head and Lenny will sell you recordings that will put you in the position of someone who has been through whatever you want to try out - sex with a gorgeous woman, breaking & entering, hardcore revelry, whatever you like. Unfortunately, someone recorded something very dangerous, which leads to people Lenny knows being killed. Lenny has to get to the bottom of things before it's decided that he'll also need taken out of the picture.

With a cast that includes Fiennes in the lead role, strong support from Angela Bassett, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, and Juliette Lewis, and smaller roles for the likes of William Fichtner and Vincent D'Onofrio, Strange Days is a film not shy of talent in front of the camera. The first three mentioned there are the standouts, thanks to their positioning in the plot, but nobody lets the side down.

With Bigelow directing, and a script written by Jay Cocks and James Cameron, it's not shy of talent behind the camera either, and that translates into a slice of very slick entertainment.

The visual style of the film is remarkable, it's dark and gorgeous and cool throughout, and the pacing works well. The runtime is almost two and a half hours, but it doesn't feel as if it is ever outstaying its welcome. Graeme Revell creates an effective soundtrack to accompany the visuals, viewers are kept very much aware of the urgency of the situation, and twists and turns, although a tad easy to spot for afficianados of this kind of film, are interspersed nicely in between the set-pieces.

But what really sets this apart is the main idea being exploited. Some elements may have dated, including the tech on display, but this takes the concept of being able to experience the sensations that someone else is having and gives it an extra, VERY dark, twist. The fact that it manages to do so without making the whole thing seem too grimy and unpalatable is testament to the skills of everyone involved.

It's also worth bearing in mind, not unlike the various episodes of Black Mirror, that Strange Days shows us what can happen to technology when it can indulge the more warped whims of human nature. Something worth bearing in mind every time we try out VR, scour the internet, or just use one of the 160 apps on our smartphones. It doesn't take a huge leap in AI to turn machines against us. It just takes another human being.

8/10

UK people can get this lovely bluray here.
Americans have this DVD, for the moment.


Saturday, 30 December 2017

Red Christmas (2016)

As another in a long line of Christmas horror movies, Red Christmas works quite well. I'm not going to hesitate to recommend it to horror fans after something a bit different, yet with many familiar genre tropes. Thematically, however, this is a much more interesting film to examine and dissect. I don't usually go into that much depth in my reviews (why suddenly spring that on people who have become used to my comforting shallowness?) and I won't break that habit here. Suffice to say, this is a film for people looking to stimulate a debate on the pros and cons of abortion. Yes, you read that right.

The film starts off with scenes set in an abortion clinic, and then we move forward twenty years in the blink of a transition panel. Dee Wallace is Diane, a proud mother setting things up for a family Christmas. With her partner and children around her, we get the usual mix of love and tensions. And then a stranger arrives at their door. A stranger with a deadly agenda.

It's often the case that we (aka me, myself & I) can get a bit carried away with complimenting independent movies if they simply manage to look as if some care was taken with the technical side of things AND the performances being coaxed out of the cast members. Which is why I gave myself a few days in between viewing this movie and writing up my review.

Yes, it's still a really good film.

Acting-wise, Wallace is fine in the lead, and she's ably supported by a cast of names I was unfamiliar with; Geoff Morrell, David Collins, Sarah Bishop, Janis McGavin, Gerard Odwyer, Deelia Meriel, and a few others.

Writer-director Craig Anderson has a lot of shorts on his CV, which has obviously helped him hone his craft over the years. Despite the premise of this film being developed around a strangely hardcore pro-life agenda (or so it would seem), plenty is done to distract viewers from the more ridiculous aspects of the plot. There are enough characters who feel impressively realised in a super-shorthand style, although not all of them, and the gory death scenes are very well done. It also has one of my favourite Die Hard references, a sly gag that is worth keeping your eyes peeled for.

A fine horror film with an enjoyable twist or two, Red Christmas also has a bit more going on below the surface than most. It may not be done as cleverly as it could be, and it is anything but subtle, but it's worth praising a film that delivers both the genre goods and also some more food for thought than your typical slasher.

7/10

UK horror fans can pick the film up here.
American readers can spend about an extra $0.30 on the bluray here.


Friday, 29 December 2017

Krampus: The Christmas Devil (2013)

Independent movies can be a minefield for both film reviewers and genre fans, and I count myself in both camps (even if nobody else views me that way). Sometimes it can be a struggle to look past the low budget and limited resources to see the aims of the film-maker. Some people might say that any flaws still lie directly at the feet of anyone trying to get their film made, and I would agree to some extent, but it's hard to get everything in place to make a movie. Good on those who manage it, but only if they have done so with some effort made, no matter the budget or resources.

Krampus: The Christmas Devil is, for the most part, quite a bad movie. But it has enough onscreen to stop me from viewing it as a waste of my time that would make me angry.

When he was a young boy, Jeremy Duffin (A. J. Leslie) was snatched up by a child-snatching killer. He came to in a sack that had been thrown into icy water. That will do that to you. Many years later, Jeremy is a police officer and that child-snatching killer is at it again. Jeremy doesn't realise that the bad man is actually Krampus, working under the orders of Santa Claus (Paul Ferm). And he may not be the one to worry about, what with a vengeful ex-con (Bill Oberst Jr) just out of prison and aiming to take out his frustrations on Jeremy and family.

Written and directed by Jason Hull, Krampus: The Christmas Devil at least tries to do something a bit different with the familiar (perhaps too familiar in recent years?) Christmas figure. Mixing in the traumatised cop, the people who blame him for lives lost, and the dangerous ex-con all helps to make up for the fact that nothing ever feels all that developed. Some intriguing ideas are hinted at (such as young Jeremy's escape, the instructions from Santa, etc) but nothing is done with them.

Acting-wise, it's generally bad news. I wasn't impressed with Leslie, or Richard Goteri (who plays his Captain). But at least they were bad while still feeling like actual actors, unlike some projects that feel as if the cast was made up of friends, family, and those who allowed filming in their homes. Samantha Hoepfl and Erica Soto are on a par with Leslie and Goteri, but at least we get a few moments of Mr Oberst Jr being as smoothly menacing as he can be, which is a minor highlight.

Viewers will also have to bear in mind that this doesn't manage to hide the fact that it was made on a shoestring budget. The technical side of things, including audio mix and shot choices, is very rough, but at least signs of competence are shown (again, unlike certain titles I could mention).

So I can't rate this highly, there's just too much going against it to make it worthy of even an average score. What I can do is accompany my low rating with a note that you might find this one more enjoyable than I did. It's far from the worst, even in this Christmas horror subgenre, and the short runtime means that, at the very least, it doesn't take up too much of your day.

3/10

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Holiday Switch (2007)

Director Bert Kish and writer Gayl Decoursey don't exactly have an extensive selection of films to their names (well, not in these specific roles anyway). That's quite surprising, considering the fact that, in a reversal of the film I watched just yesterday, they try to do their best with this story of a woman who ends up in a different life from the one she has been living.

Nicole Eggert is Paula, a tired and long-suffering wife and mother. She seems to feel that a lot of her unhappiness stems from the fact that her husband (Gary, played by Bret Anthony) isn't making enough money to solve all of their problems. Or get their bills paid. Her unhappiness is exacerbated when she runs into a rich ex (Nick, played by Brett Le Bourveau). Not that she had previously given him much thought, unless you count the bizarre selection of clippings she keeps in an artwork folder. Nick and his wife are back in town for a big show at his art gallery. As resentment and frustration starts to bubble up, Paula gives herself a bump on the head and wakes up, yep, married to Nick in a life that she thinks she has always wanted.

So . . . It's A Wonderful Life given another reworking? Yeah, pretty much, but it's not the worst premise to be working with for a Christmas TV movie. And it's well done here, with just the right mix of drama, comedy derived from Paula acting more than just a little crazy, and some decent characters. While Paula makes her own mess due to selfishness and envy, it's hard not to root for things to turn out well for her as she tries to make amends in a number of different ways.

Eggert is a decent lead, portraying a character often ill-at-ease in most of the situations that we see her in, and Anthony is handed the easy part of lovely bloke who remains a lovely bloke while lots of other changes occur. Le Bourveau is fine, and does just enough in the opening scenes to make his character seem just about desirable enough, Patricia Mayen-Salazar is good as the hired help who manages to keep Paula right while she gets used to her new life, and Kristina Barr is equally good as Janine, the ex-girlfriend of Gary in one life and his wife in the other.

Although it never rises above the level of TV movie, in terms of both the plot devices and the limited scale of the whole thing, this achieves what it sets out to achieve. That's no reason to shower it with praise, but it's reason enough to push it above a number of other, lazier, titles you could be choosing to watch at this time of year.

5/10

Here is a large selection of Christmas movies to enjoy.
And American elves can pick the same set up here.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Once Upon A Holiday (2015)

Briana Evigan plays a princess, Katie, who escapes from the busybodies around her to spend an enjoyable day in New York. Unfortunately, she is robbed, losing her handbag and a camera, the latter of which was a very special gift that she had managed to keep hold of for years. But she does get to meet a nice guy named Jack (Paul Campbell). The two of them enjoy the company of one another, Katie gets to meet some interesting people while she tries to evade those who are growing more frantic in their search for her, but can things have a happy ending for two people from such very different worlds?

Compared to many other Christmas TV movies, Once Upon A Holiday doesn't feel as if it is exactly overflowing with the spirit of the season. It has a number of Santas involved in one or two scenes, and people are occasionally shown to be celebrating in a festive manner, but the whole thing really feels like a "rich person pretending to be just like normal folks" plotline that was given a minimal addition of tinsel and holly to allow it to qualify for the Christmas schedules.

Between them, director James Head and writer David Golden have a good deal of experience working within the parameters of TV entertainment, but you wouldn't know that from this particular example. It has the comforting familiarity to it, in terms of the way thngs play out, but it doesn't do enough to make it all that enjoyable, despite the bonus of having Evigan in a lead role.

Speaking of Evigan, this winning performance serves as another reminder for me of the puzzling way in which her career seems to have halted before it even really took off. The same actress who was eminently watchable in Burning Bright, Step Up 2: The Streets, Sorority Row, and Mother's Day, to name the main titles that I have seen her in, remains eminently watchable here. But I can't think of the last time that she had a role worthy of her personality and presence. The rest of the cast aren't on her level, although Campbell tries hard to be acceptable as the standard safe, nice and sweet guy who our leading lady could find happiness with. Briana's father, Greg, does decent work with his limited screentime, Jay Brazeau is the sorta-Santa figure of the piece, and that really covers the supporting turns worth mentioning.

It's a real shame that this is so bland throughout, with the exception of Evigan. It never feels as if there are any decent stakes involved and there just aren't nearly enough gratuitous Christmas moments shoved in to make it all more appealing.

3/10

Here is a large selection of Christmas movies to enjoy.
And American elves can pick the same set up here.


Tuesday, 26 December 2017

El Camino Christmas (2017)

A Christmas movie with a fairly impressive cast of well-known names that attempts to do something different. Sounds good, right? But let's not beat around the bush here. It isn't.

Luke Grimes stars as a young man, named Eric Roth, who wanders into the town of El Camino, looking for his estranged father. A series of unfortunate coincidences lead to him being put in the cells for a night, then being freed by one officer before being aggressively pursued by another, and this leads to him ending up in a liquor store that is surrounded by police, who all believe him to be a dangerous criminal holding others hostage.

Here's the cast involved in El Camino Christmas - Grimes, Tim Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Dax Shepard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Michelle Mylett, and Kimberly Quinn. There are some other people onscreen, but that covers the core names I wanted to mention. Because that isn't a bad cast list at all, particularly when it comes to a non-theatrical Christmas movie. It's also worth saying at this point, lest I forget, that none of the cast actually do a bad job. Seriously. They're all good in the roles that they're given.

Which makes it obvious that the problems stem from the talent behind the camera. Director David E. Talbert also wrote and directed the poor Almost Christmas so I already know that he's not my go to guy for festive fare. But blaming him alone wouldn't be fair. In fact, blaming him for being unable to elevate the horribly hackneyed script isn't fair at all, despite my disappointment with his previous Christmas movie.

Writers Theodore Melfi and Christopher Wehner should share the blame. The latter has nothing else to his credit at the moment, but Melfi started this cinematic year so well with his work on Hidden Figures. Which means I have to make this unusual statement. If I was a teacher, viewing a final project that Melfi and Wehner had worked on together, I would be forced to give that project a low mark and then keep the pair separated for the rest of the year, allowing me to see how much better each one can do without the influence of the other. Someone obviously thought this was a cool idea, a Christmas movie that has all of the characters and a dash of the spirit of the season with the minimal of festive trimmings. They were wrong.

There's no rule saying that a Christmas movie has to have all of the familiar elements in place to succeed. It just takes more work to make that happen. More than just a script that seems to be winking at viewers and assuring them that something is coming along in time for the finale that will make everything preceding it worthwhile. Which would be okay IF something did come along to make it all worthwhile.

Technical competence and that solid cast explain my fairly generous rating. Not one to make a high priority, even throughout December.

4/10

Here is a large selection of Christmas movies to enjoy.
And American elves can pick the same set up here.