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.


Monday, 25 December 2017

The Box Of Delights (1984)

When I watch The Box Of Delights now I see the varying quality of the special effects, I can't quite block out the acting that often feels both a bit hammy and patronising, and there's a sense that the plotting somehow manages to stretch out material while also not giving viewers enough of the better elements. I see all of those things, despite looking through the muslin sheet of nostalgia draped in front of my eyes. And none of those things bother me. I KNOW a lot of affection for this is the nostalgia, really I do, but taking a step back and looking at The Box Of Delights while trying to keep that muslin sheet out of my eyes is bloody difficult. And, considering how others talk about it, I am not alone here. So let's take this review for what it is, something written about a beloved TV series I cannot bring myself to criticise too harshly. A show that led to six weeks of 8/9-year-old me asking for guaranteed 30 minutes of television time all to myself. A seasonal treat that an entire generation who saw it when it first aired here in the UK now think of as being synonymous with the best of Christmas (a sense of magic, being huddled in a warm home while outside was cold and dark, the BBC providing quality programming). Treat yourselves to both this and the old BBC adaptations of The Chronicles Of Narnia and you have quite a treat for yourself, as far as I am concerned.


Without any further ado, here is the briefest of plot summaries. Devin Stanfield plays Kay Harker, a young boy who is travelling to stay with family during the Christmas break from boarding school. He bumps into an old man (Patrick Troughton) on his journey, unwittingly getting himself involved in an adventure to protect the titular box from the dastardly clutches of Abner Brown (Jonathan Stevens). Brown is being helped by a variety of baddies, including a couple of very shifty men, given the dubious names of Fox Faced Charles (Robert Stephens) and Chubby Joe (Geoffrey Larder), and a woman who used to be Kay's governess at one point (Patricia Quinn). By the end of episode one, Kay is given a hint of what the box can do, but he doesn't really have any idea of how powerful it can be. It allows anyone to shrink in size, to fly, to transform into other animals, to access the past, and more.

Based on the book by John Masefield, a sequel to his book The Midnight Folk, this may hit the ground running and move forward in a way that will have some people scratching their heads, but that isn't to the detriment of the show. While viewers are trying to piece things together, or figure out some gaps in the narrative, director Renny Rye lets the rest unfurl comfortably in between moments that either ratchet up the tension or make use of the latest special effects (for the time). Although dated and sometimes crude now, it's still obvious just what would impress younger viewers back in 1984, and there's a simple beauty to some of the animation work that crops up throughout the series.

There's also a simple beauty to the moments that have stayed so vivid in my memory over the years. Herne The Hunter (Glyn Baker) providing a bit of exposition, the idea of wolves literally following the trail of our reluctant hero, unfriendly rodents of unusual size, and one friendly rodent who seems to be of unusual size only after Harker has used the box to shrink himself, clergymen being whisked away and held captive, and more. The special effects don't actually matter in many of these instances. Once you get on board with the fantastical feeling of the whole story then you start to become engrossed and eager to see what happens in each exciting instalment.


While the cast are all acting in line with the BBC drama approach of the time, especially for this kind of literary adaptation (children's book or not), nobody can really be picked out for stinking up the screen. Stanfield actually does quite a good job of making his posh young character quite likable, and the performances from Troughton and Stevens always emphasise their opposing positions in the camps of good and evil. Stephens and Larder are enjoyably sneaky, Quinn does well with her relatively limited screentime, and everyone else hits their marks and delivers their lines.

I've tried to emphasise the nostalgia factor here, but I have also tried to remind people of how deserving of praise this really is. Effects and visuals will always date, acting styles change throughout the years, but the essence of the story, and the wonderful spirit of the whole thing, remains untarnished, even over three decades later. I can't swear that my high rating will be shared by anyone just discovering the series for the first time. I can, however, say that it reflects my feelings for it, and that it is something I will certainly invest time in whenever I remember to keep a window in my future Christmas schedules.

And let's not forget this theme music.


8/10

Buy it here for only £3. Well worth it.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Inheritance (2017)

Yes, it's time for another bright and breezy Netflix Christmas movie. This time it's the tale of a young heiress (Ellen, played by Eliza Taylor) who, desperate to prove to her father that she can do more than just be photographed partying and being sociable, ends up in a small town, with no credit cards, only $100 to her name, and forbidden to reveal her true identity. She finds herself most often in the company of a young man named Jake (Jake Lacy) and ends up helping him, in return for her room and board, while she sees how he tries to help others.

Written by Dinah Eng, who currently only has this and Reluctant Nanny in her list of credits, and directed by Ernie Barbarash (who has a much more varied background in his filmography), Christmas Inheritance checks a lot of the boxes that you want checked in this kind of thing. It's also, like most of these movies, simple enough to watch with one eye as you wrap presents, yet also fairly engaging and enjoyable.

The leads help immensely. Lacy was already familiar to me, after his stint on The Office, and he does just fine here, being the typical Christmas movie male lead who has an appeal that starts to show under a thawing exterior, appropriately enough. I don't think I have seen Taylor in anything before this. She's a lot of fun in a role that you can easily picture being given to someone like Reese Witherspoon or Emma Roberts, for two very different interpretations. Taylor falls in between the two nicely, not as cloyingly sweet and nice as the former and nowhere near as cool and potentially scathing as the latter. And you have Andie MacDowell not being too annoying in a supporting role, as well as Neil Crone (playing Ellen's father) and Michael Xavier (Ellen's shallow boyfriend).

The comedy isn't ever hilarious, but it's more gently amusing than some other examples I could name, and the plot hinges on a conceit that never feels entirely believable, but when has that ever been an issue when it comes to Christmas movies? If I can put up with films that have Santa, elves, annd magic sprinkled throughout them then I can put up with a little stretching of plausibility.

I realise that a lot of these reviews will feel like I am just saying the same thing over and over again. That's the downside of watching so many Christmas movies. They operate on familiarity and predictability. They often work with the exact same set of tropes (even if they try to disguise things with the framing narrative). So if you ever get fed up of reading similar sentences in my December reviews . . . imagine having to sit through all of the actual films.

6/10

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


Saturday, 23 December 2017

Miss Christmas (2017)

The Radcliff Tree, and lighting ceremony, in Chicago is, to quote Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal. Which is why Holly Khun (Brooke D'Orsay) spends most of her year searching for the perfect tree. And she thinks her search is over when she reads a letter from a young boy who is offering the perfect tree, but it turns out that the father of the boy doesn't want to see the tree moved from their town to Chicago. So it's up to Holly to convince everyone, while the clock ticks away, that the tree will create a lot of happy memories for a lot of people.

Written by Joie Botkin (who started her screenwriting career this year with this and A Song For Christmas), and directed by Mike Rohl (who has a LOT of TV credits to his name, with stints on shows such as Smallville and Supernatural, to name just a couple), there's nothing truly terrible about Miss Christmas. But that is something that can also be said of so many other Christmas TV movies.

What this film gives you is a simple plot that allows for a few heartstring-tugging moments (nothing major, don't worry about crying over your mince pies), a scene featuring some amusingly ugly Christmas sweaters, an entirely predictable will they-won't they romance, and a standard message that reiterates the true meaning of Christmas while also focusing on the main character putting all of her energy into securing a big and beautiful tree.

What Miss Christmas DOESN'T give you is a decent enough cast. D'Orsay doesn't really exude the right amount of care or warmth in her role, even when she is making her case for being allowed to take care of the tree, and Marc Blucas, playing the father of the young boy who wrote the letter, is okay in small doses, but should never be called upon to be a male lead. These movies can rise or fall depending on the cast, and this cast just isn't good enough to lift it above average. Luke Roessler is the young lad who wrote the letter, Greg Rogers is his grandfather (and father to the character played by Blucas), and Fiona Vroom is the other family member, and onside with D'Orsay pretty much from the very beginning.

One to keep as a very low priority, which means you have about a million other viewing choices you could put ahead of this one, Miss Christmas is still inoffensive, relatively harmless, stuff. But that's really all of the praise I can give it.

4/10

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



Friday, 22 December 2017

The Spruces And The Pines (2017)

"Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair New England, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of tree-cross'd lovers find each other in life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows, Do with their larking about hope to bury their parents' strife. The fearful passage of their Christmas-mark'd love, And the continuance of their parents' rage, Which, but their children's stern rebuke, nought could remove, Is now the two hours' (with sponsored adverts) traffic of our stage; The which if you with patient ears attend, What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."
Apologies for butchering the words of Shakespeare there. I am no mighty bard, and could do no more than change a few words here and there to serve as an introduction to The Spruces And The Pines. But I had to make the effort, because this film is a reworking of Romeo & Juliet, with the action moved from Verona to a small town that contains a couple of Christmas Tree Farms. Rick Spruce (Nick Ballard) has turned up to work at one farm, for his uncle (Ken Cheeseman). Julie Pine (Jonna Walsh) has turned up to work at the other farm, helping out her father (Tom Kemp). The two find themselves attracted to one another before realising that they shouldn't, leading to a troubled time as Julie tries to convince Rick that they can't get involved . . . for all of ten seconds. The rest of the movie involves the two of them getting on just fine until their respective patriarchal figures discover just what has been going on, immediately forbidding their blossoming romance.

While there's enough here to enjoy at the right time of year, just, The Spruces And The Pines is a film that takes that most famous tale of forbidden love and dilutes it, one cup of mulled wine at a time, until it barely resembles the source material it stemmed from. This would seem to be the fault of screenwriter Marcy Holland, although I suspect that nobody will start viewing this and expect it to end in a depressing finale involving poison and death. Director John Stimpson doesn't help much, relying on the leads to carry the material, without having leads who are quite up to the task.

I'm not saying that Walsh and Ballard are bad. They're just not great, and they never sell any of the more serious moments, as infrequent as they are. They're enjoyable enough in the lighter moments, and you get musical interpretations of a classic holiday song accompanying a montage to help win you over. Cheeseman and Kemp are even more hampered, in some ways. They have to stay feuding rivals throughout, being angered with each other for the silliest of reasons. Sarah Fischer and John MacGregor do slightly better, as Holly and Josh, two friends of the main characters who see the growing love and are always available to help with pranks and any scheming.

On the plus side, this is slightly different (but only slightly) from the multitude of other Christmas movies being shown on rotation at this time of year. That doesn't make it necessarily better, I'm afraid, but at least it can give you a break if you have already had your fill of Santa, elves, or sad children needing to find the kind of gift that can't be placed under a tree.

5/10

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


Thursday, 21 December 2017

Mickey's Once Upon A Christmas (1999)

A delightful animated anthology from The House Of Mouse, Mickey's Once Upon A Christmas uses some of your favourite characters to provide younger viewers with a nice selection of stories that ultimately highlight the true meaning of Christmas.

The first tale has Huey, Louie, and Dewey wishing that Christmas could be every day, much like the hit seasonal song. But, when that actually happens, it doesn't take them long to tire of the idea. As they keep themselves occupied with toys, food, avoiding affectionate relatives, and some pranks, they start to realise that there's possibly something more to Christmas that they hadn't considered while being a bit selfish and materialistic. The second tale focuses on Goofy and his son, with both taking turns at playing Santa Claus at one point, trying to provide others with Christmas cheer. Third, and last, we have Mickey Mouse and Minnie struggling to get each other the perfect gift.

Disney are, of course, no stranger to the animated anthology. It helped them piece together features many years ago, before they didn't have to worry about money and production costs (I know there are still people who monitor such things, but it can't be as worrisome now that Disney owns half the entertainment world). No matter what you think of the brand, they are very good at what they do, mixing entertaining antics with a healthy serving of good morals. The animation is nice enough, but this is really all about the characters being placed in these Christmas tales, so anyone who likes anthropomorphic ducks, Goofy, and Mickey and co. should be kept easily entertained.

The framing device, as slight as it is, shows three main toys under a tree (a boat, a teddy bear, and a sleigh) and has some narration from Kelsey Grammer. There's not a moment of this that doesn't feel as if it's doing the best job possible to make you hear bells ringing and smell the animated pine needles.

Followed by Mickey's Twice Upon A Christmas, which I have yet to see, this could easily make itself a small viewing tradition in any family household. And, at just over an hour in length, it's one that can easily be slotted in between other activities of the season. I'd even suggest that it's possible for children to enjoy this one without them getting themselves too hyped up just before bedtime (especially handy for thoseneeding a temporary distraction as they prepare gifts at the last minute while playing Santa Claus).

8/10

Here's a boxset for UK people to pick up and enjoy.
And here is that same set available for dollars.


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Dog Who Saved Christmas (2009)

An unlikely start to a franchise, and yet here is a dog-centred Christmas film that currently has numerous sequels. Don't take that as a sign of quality, however. It's really just a sign of how easily these kinds of films can be churned out.

Mario Lopez provides the voice of Zeus, a dog who wants to do well for his new owners (Gary Valentine, Elisa Donovan, and their kids, played by Sierra McCormick and Charlie Stewart). Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be able to move around the house without putting a paw wrong. But maybe he can get himself into good enough guard dog shape in time to foil a couple of would-be robbers (Dean Cain and Joey Diaz).

With a smattering of decent enough names, including Mindy Sterling and Adrienne Barbeau in small supporting roles, and enough scenes showing a lovely dog looking lovely, The Dog Who Saved Christmas is fairly easy holiday viewing. There are also a couple of talking rodents that will remind viewers of Babe (a much better film for those seeking some talking animals).

Written by Michael Ciminera and Richard Gnolfo (with the two of them helped in the story department by Jeffrey Schenck), this is a simple tale of being able to find your inner strength when it is most needed. The backstory for Zeus tries to be worthwhile, although it doesn't end up being nearly as effective as it should be, and the third act is when you are rewarded with one or two satisfying moments. Sort of.

Director Michael Feifer looks to have made a real career for himself in the world of TV movies, and I can only hope that he has used each project to try honing his craft a little bit more. Judging him solely on this film, he does very little to elevate the material, and nothing to help distract from the cheapness of it all.

Despite its many flaws, mainly the lack of care in the script department and the lack of care from Feifer, this has enough to keep undemanding viewers mildly entertained for the runtime. And when I say that I actually mean that I am happy enough to watch any film with a cute doggie as the main character (whether or not he or she is being voiced by one of the Saved By The Bell cast).

4/10

Some of these here films are here.
Americanas can pick up a triple-pack here.


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

A Christmas Wish (2011)

I spend a lot of my time watching certain kinds of Christmas movies. There are the Christmas horrors (of which we now have SO many to choose from), the Christmas films aimed at kids (either animated or focusing on Santa, or just mixing in some adorable pets), and the Christmas films that make up the overwhelming majority nowadays - the safe and inoffensive products churned out every year by Hallmark and ABC and the like. In fact, it's easy for me to forget that there are other kinds of Christmas movies out there. Films with a deeply religious message, the many action movies penned by Shane Black (okay, some count more than others), and those that deliver a message about kindness and love by making you watch a main character get put through the wringer for almost an entire 80 minutes before using the finale to set things right. A Christmas Wish falls firmly in the latter camp.

Kristy Swanson stars as Martha Evans, a struggling mother of three children. She has been placed in that position, just days before Christmas, by a husband who decided to abscond with all of their money. Which is why she heads off for a fresh start, trying to do her best by her children (despite one constantly reminding her that she isn't his real mother), booking into a motel room, and taking on a very low-paid position in a diner owned by a kind woman who would love to help more, but just can't.

Written and directed by Craig Clyde, A Christmas Wish may not be surprising or slick, or even that overflowing with festive cheer, but it is a surprisingly effective and moving little film. As well as the plot details mentioned, you have the potential for romance, a car that decides to break down at the most inconvenient time, a dilemma about living arrangements, and problems ensuring that the children are looked after.

Swanson does well in an unglamorous role, although she still manages to shine without outshining the character she is playing, and the cast also includes Edward Herrmann as a grumpy diner customer who takes a liking to her character, Tess Harper as the aforementioned kindly diner owner, K. C. Clyde as a handsome and sweet local guy, and some decent child actors (particularly Kevin Herring III and Kristin Dorn). There are also good turns from Mike Hagerty, Page Petrucka, Star Herrmann, and many of the other supporting players.

I must have had problems with needles falling off my Christmas tree this year because, just before the end credits started to roll, I felt a little something in my eye. Yeah, it must have been the tree. That is the only explanation. Because there's no way that a TV movie like this would put a lump in my throat and make my eyes so watery. Nuh uh. No way.

6/10

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


Monday, 18 December 2017

Becoming Santa (2015)

Not to be confused with the documentary from 2011, this is a fun TV movie that covers familiar ground (don't they all?) but does so with a lot of fun to offset the usual overdose of sweetness.

Laura Bell Bundy stars as Holly Claus, a lovely woman with a surname that hasn't made her boyfriend/fiance (Connor, played by Jesse Hutch) wonder more about her parents. In fact, he remains comically oblivious when they finally go to meet Mr & Mrs Claus (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, respectively), despite them both looking pretty much exactly as you'd expect THE Mr & Mrs Claus to look. It eventually becomes clear that the man who marries Holly is expected to take over the family business, which looks set to be disastrous as Connor attempts to pass a number of tests without realising their significance. He also has to contend with a pesky ex-boyfriend on the scene (Jack Frost, played by Tony Cavalero).

Written by Barbara Kymlicka (who has a number of these things under her belt) and directed by Christie Will Wolf (who also has decent back catalogue in this field, including at least one other working from a script by Kymlicka), Becoming Santa is a very good dollop of Christmas cheer. Yes, it's worth reminding readers once again that I judge Christmas TV movies a lot more generously than I judge many other films, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that a few good Christmas TV movies manage to be genuinely good. Like this one.

It has everything you want from a Christmas film - Santa, elves, romance, toys, reindeer, magic, cookies - and it also has very enjoyable performances from all of the leads. Bundy and Hutch make an appealing couple, Gross is effective enough as Santa, Baxter is very good, and Cavalero is just the right mix of amusing and dastardly in the role of Jack Frost.

Highlights include the trials to become Santa, the sneaky undermining from Jack Frost, the naivete of Connor, and the pleasant sprinkling of magic throughout that keeps this firmly in the realm of easygoing Christmas fantasy family fare (not to be confused with the Christmas fantasy non-family fare that can be found just by searching for the likes of "Santa's sexy little helper", for example - so I have heard *ahem*).

I would certainly rewatch this one, even without being forced into it, and I will look forward to anything else that stars Bundy and Hutch (who seems to relish this kind of role more than bing stuck in some dire Steven Seagal vehicle), who both make for some of the most appealing leads I have seen in the holiday TV movie season this year.

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

7/10


Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Sweetest Christmas (2017)

You could throw a dart at a TV guide and hit the title of a TV movie starring Lacey Chabert. It seems to be her thing now. I can't recall the last time I saw her in a theatrical release, which is a shame because I like her a lot. Not that I am criticising her choices. I am sure that she is very happy to have such a prolific career, and to be receiving those paydays. All I am doing here is reiterating, as I am sure I have mentioned it before, that if you enjoy these holiday TV movies then I have no doubt that you will have already seen at least one or two starring Mrs Chabert.

You may also have seen a few movies directed by Terry Ingram. He's done his fair share of Christmas films (including Wish Upon A Christmas, Finding Father Christmas, and Hats Off To Christmas! - the latter of which I have seen, and given a 5/10). So it's not unfair to think that the pairing of this director and star will result in something very enjoyable, for this kind of thing.

Chabert plays Kylie Watson, a talented pastry chef who is over the moon when she discovers that she has made it into the finals of a competition judging who can make the best gingerbread creation. Her delight is short-lived, however, when her oven breaks down. You can't work on delicious baked good creations without a decent over. So it's fortunate that an old flame, Nick (Lea Coco), runs a restaurant that has a couple of ovens she may be able to use. Not that everything will go smoothly, of course.

Thisis your typical Hallmark creation. Attractive people with problems that are far removed from real life. We don't really know how Chabert has made her way through life before this point, and it doesn't matter. Everyone is settled and comfortable, there's nothing to remind you of real problems in the world around us, and you can almost smell the gingerbread baking. That's all this wants to give you, and it does.

Chabert is a likable lead (as I have mentioned before, despite chopping and changing the way I spell the word "likable/likeable"), Coco is fine (although I have to wonder if they picked him JUST for having his surname tagged on to this movie title), and you have support from Lane Edwards, Jonathan Adams, Lara Gilchrist, and Brenden Sunderland as the child who inadvertently helps the adults to bond.

Pedestrian in the extreme, this does no more than keep your screen full of a homogenised selection of "lovely townsfolk" all doing their bit on the run up to Christmas. You'll see smiles, Christmas trees, and a marketable and copywritten vision of the season - all designed to keep you only slightly distracted as you make your own preparations during the holidays.

5/10

Hallmark Channel PR pic.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Silent Night, Dead Night: A New Christmas Carol (2016)

Two things have to be mentioned at the start of this review. First of all, a question. Considering the exact same cast lists and other similarities, is Silent Night, Dead Night: A New Christmas Carol simply a retitled release of Scrooge In The Hood? I suspect it is, but I don't want to do writer-director Richard Chandler a disservice if there are enough differences between the two. Second, stop reading this review right now and head along to read the Amazon reviews for this. See all of the praise heaped upon it by horror fans, and then realise that most, if not all, of them are actually writing about the superior Silent Night, Deadly Night. And laugh heartily. Because that is generally more fun than this film.

The plot here, if it wasn't clear from the title, is a sleazy, profanity, riddled, reworking of that familiar Charles Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge (George Raynor) is a tight-fisted, unpleasant pimp/gangster who is about to become the victim of an attempted takeover by a rival gang. But that isn't of any conern to him while he spends a night in the company of the Ghost Of Christmas Past (Seregon O'Dassey), the Ghost Of Christmas Present (Todd Therrien), and the Ghost Of Christmas Future (Chandler also giving himself some time in front of the camera).

Here's my usual reminder before I come across as overly critical of any movie. I am always impressed by people who get any film made (well, unless it is all one shot on a phone with nothing done to improve sound or framing or anything that might help make it feel more like an actual movie). I know it can take a LOT of blood, sweat and tears to get something done, especially when you don't have any actual budget. With that being said, it's not enough for a film to be made with JUST good intentions. There has to be some spark there that individual viewers can choose to focus on or dismiss as they wish. That spark is there in, for example, the films of Brian Williams (director of the enjoyable Time To Kill and Space Babes From Outer Space - both available here, alongside the very enjoyable Harvest Lake). It's also in the films made by Dustin Wayde Mills (check out his Patreon page here, although I am sure he also had a standard store online somewhere). It's not here, I'm afraid.

From the opening "trailer" sequence to the deliberate lo-fi look of the main feature, to the intermission, to the loose structuring that makes everything feel both undeveloped and yet also overlong, this is an independent feature that makes almost all of the most common mistakes we have seen far too many times before.

The script is pretty dire, although saved by working from Dickens. None of the nastiness is nasty enough and none of the humour really works. The performances are as varied as you might expect - Raynor makes up for a lack of major talent with the fun of his performance, Therrien is okay as a slobby ghost, O'Dassey had me bemused with whatever accent she was using (seemed to be a different one for each line), and nobody really stands out from the rest of the cast.

I am sure there will be some people out there who will enjoy this. Hell, some people don't like watching any film with a budget over $500 (so this should make them very happy). It just didn't work for me, and it's hard to tell what was affected by the money and what was affected by a careless and lazy attitude. Humbug, mothafucka!

3/10

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



Friday, 15 December 2017

Christmas Bounty (2013)

The Miz. Do you know him? If you're a wrestling fan then the chances are that you do. Or if you have watched any of the many WWE movie products released over the past 5-10 years. The Miz is one of their stars that they have decided to give a helping hand with by building him a movie career. Good for The Miz, but is it good for viewers? Well, he's not that bad onscreen. He has a bit of personality, an ability to engage in moments that show he has a sense of humour (particularly in Santa's Little Helper), and the obvious physicality for the action roles (which I am assuming is on display in his starring role in The Marine movie series).

But Christmas Bounty, while featuring The Miz in a large supporting role, isn't really about him. It's about a character played by Francia Raisa. She plays a schoolteacher who is trying to escape her bounty hunter past. She's so ashamed of her roots that she hasn't explained any of it to her fiance, James (Will Greenberg). Which causes some confusion when she ends up returning home to tie up some loose ends. James follows her, he meets her mother (April Telek) and father (Michael Hanus), and he starts to realise that she may not be who she says she is. While viewers simply keep thinking about how she isn't The Miz.

Director Gil Junger (who many years ago gave us the wonderful 10 Things I Hate About You) takes this silly premise, a silly premise crafted by no less than three writers (Andrew Black, Claudia Grazioso, and Vivian Lee), and does the minimum required to keep it all moving along briskly enough from start to finish.

Junger is helped out a lot by the cast. Raisa is fine, The Miz is just about charismatic enough to warrant his move up the movie career ladder, and Greenberg just has to look suitably bemused and out of place. There's also a small supporting role for Chelan Simmons, and Alexs Paunovic playing a heavy with a vendetta, and Telek and Hanus are a lot of fun as the parents proud of a daughter who now feels a bit embarrassed by her background.

The script isn't as funny as it should be, and the action is lacking, which is a shame. This is a film that could easily be improved by a) some more action beats, and b) a better blend of laughs with the fights, as characters struggled to resolve their different issues and avoid receiving extra bruises.

If you collect films starring WWE alumni then this is one to make a very low priority. If you are after something seasonal to enjoy during the holidays then, again, this should be a very low priority. Despite the timing of the events, it doesn't ever really feel too Christmassy, and you don't get much ho ho ho for your money.

4/10

American readers are lucky enough to be able to buy this here.


Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Flight Before Christmas (2015)

Director Peter Sullivan must surely know his stuff when it comes to Christmas TV movies. Don't believe me? Just check out his list of credits on IMDb. Between his directing AND producing credits, he has had his fingers in a lot of mince pies. And it shows.

The Flight Before Christmas (which, like many other Christmas movies, isn't even original enough to have a title that hasn't been used once or twice before) is a superior example of this type of entertainment. You're not going to get any surprises, these things are all about comfort and contentment as opposed to challenging viewers, but you get some nice moments between two likable leads, and a couple of decent supporting players to help things move along at a decent pace.

Maym Bialik plays Stephanie, a young woman unceremoniously ditched by her boyfriend right before Christmas. This is also right before she was due to move in with him, leaving her technically "between homes", which adds insult to injury. So she decides to head home for Christmas. One coincidence after another sees her spending a lot of time in the company of Michael (Ryan McPartlin). Michael is used to travelling back and forth across the country, maintaining a long-term relationship with the woman he hopes to make his wife one day. If he could only decide on the perfect ring. While forced to endure each other's company, thanks to their flight being diverted and grounded, Stephanie and Michael start to bond. Surprise, surprise.

Written by Jennifer Notas Shapiro, The Flight Before Christmas is not only polished and predictable seasonal fluff, it's also surprisingly, if mildly, less patronising than usual. I admit to being very surprised when I saw that Bialik was starring in this, but I was less surprised as the film started to play out. Within the confines of the film, she still manages to portray a strong-willed and smart woman who doesn't want to define her entire life by her need for a man. Yes, there is a love story here, and Bialik is upset by her enforced single status, but there are a number of moments that allow her to, dare I say it, blossom in the eyes of her male co-star, rather than just have her look pretty and in need of help up until a third act union (which is the more common structure for these films).

Bialik is well-suited to the role, and McPartlin works well with her. He is just the right mix of sweet and ignorantly condescending, learning quickly as he goes along that he may not know as much about love as he thinks he does. Brian Doyle-Murray is the requisite "Santa" figure, in a cameo role that has him onscreen for a few minutes at most, and Reginald VelJohnson and Jo Marie Payton are enjoyable enough as the couple who run a small hotel in a village that Bialik and McPartlin are forced to spend time in while awaiting rearranged flights.

It might seem as if I have been overselling this one slightly, and I don't want anyone to read this and think they're in for a masterpiece, but this is almost downright progressive compared to so many other TV movies you could end up seeing at this time of year.

6/10

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


Admittedly, not exactly an image that aligns with what I have said above

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Olive, The Other Reindeer (1999)

Olive, The Other Reindeer is an odd, sweet slice of animation that, thanks to the quirky humour and strange style of the whole thing, perfectly hits all of the expected Christmas story beats without feeling like a carbon copy of so many other tales just like it.

Drew Barrymore voices Olive, a dog that doesn't always act as a dog should. Olive also loves Christmas, so she decides to head on a long journey to help out Santa. A reindeer is injured, which means no sleigh availability, which means the possibility of NO Christmas. And that just won't do. Along the way, Olive befriends a hustling penguin (Martini, voiced by Joe Pantoliano) and has to avoid the clutches of a very grumpy mailman (voiced by Dan Castellaneta).

Directed by Steve Moore, and "presented" by Matt Groening, it's quite obvious from the opening scenes that this is something that will appeal to those who enjoy The Simpsons. The crude animation makes up in heart what it seems to lack in grace and precision, the dialogue is a lot of fun, and the pacing is perfect (with a runtime of approximately 45 minutes, it doesn't feel too short but also doesn't outstay its welcome). The script, written by Steve Young, based on the book by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, is simple in the plotting but full of delightful lines peppered throughout every scene.

The voice cast also helps a lot. Barrymore has just the right, upbeat, voice for the main character. If anyone can play a likable, hustling penguin then that someone is Pantoliano, and Castellaneta can do general grumpiness in his sleep. As well as those featured players, viewers are also treated to the vocal stylings of Edward Asner, Peter MacNicol, Tim Meadows, Jay Mohr, and even a great little musical moment involving Michael Stipe.

Overall, this is a great short film to incorporate into any annual viewing selection. While not as established as many other classics, and not as polished or covered in bells and whistles as some modern features (yes, you know I am looking at you and your 3D motion capture shenanigans, Robert Zemeckis), this makes up for any shortcomings with humour and heart. And it's mostly the heart that makes it such a lovely seasonal gem.

8/10

UK folks can pick up the DVD here.
Americanos can pick it up here.


Tuesday, 12 December 2017

A Madea Christmas (2013)

In the interests of full disclosure I have to start this review by saying that this was my first Madea movie. I checked with a friend to find out if I could/should view this one without having seen any of the others and was given the okay (cheers Kieran). And I WILL check out other Madea movies. Not because this one was fantastic - it wasn't - but because I am now fascinated with seeing how Tyler Perry puts his creation into different scenarios.

Having first appeared in a number of stage plays (about half of which have since been adapted into movies), Madea is an elderly African American woman with a hellish attitude, brutal honesty, and the ability to overreact to many minor incidents while staying calm in the face of more emotional moments. This is what I have gleaned from one film anyway. And she is played by Tyler Perry.

Now that we both know a bit about the character, let's move on to the plot of the film. Madea ends up heading along with Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) to visit Eileen's daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter). Lacey has to hide the fact that she is married to a lovely young white man (Conner, played by Eric Lively), pretending that he is her helper, and is also facing trouble at the school she works at, struggling to help fund local Christmas celebrations that will allow the kids to shine. One of those kids is extremely bright, much to the delight of his mother (Alicia Witt), although his father (Chad Michael Murray) has more immediate concerns about his farmland and struggle to make ends meet. Oh, and Conner's parents (Larry The Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy) are about to visit.

Yes, that was me trying to be brief with the plot description there, but there's a lot more to mention. The character played by Chad Michael Murray spent many years bullying the character played by Eric Lively. The funding for the local festivities comes with a number of strings attached. There's a random Ku Klux Klan meeting gag. And so much more.

Although I have no other experience with this character, or these plays and movies, A Madea Christmas gives me the distinct impression that Tyler Perry likes to stir plenty into the pot, all the while having his female creation ready to take centre stage whenever necessary. She doesn't necessarily solve any, or all, problems but she enables others to find their own solutions. And she does this by cutting through any bullshit, in between scenes that have her either throwing her weight around and cussing or spouting some tiresome homely wisdom.

The acting ranges from soap opera levels (Murray and Horsford can't overcome the poor writing) to the genuinely good (Perry, despite the broad comedy of the character he plays, is great in the lead role, and other very good turns come from Sumpter, Lively, Mr Cable Guy, Najimy, and Witt), and the direction is solid, if deliberately leaving aside any flash and sizzle in favour of simple camerawork and scene set-ups.

The big problem here is the script, veering between comedy to earnest drama back to comedy again like some drunk driver heading along an empty four-lane stretch of highway while searching for the packet of cigarettes he just dropped under his seat. One or two moments work while mixing the two - particularly a revelation and clearing of the air scene in the third act - but most make you feel as if you're watching two different movies that were dropped en route to the editing department and then just spliced together into one ill-judged hybrid.

So there you go. Feel free to take this review with a pinch of salt. And whenever I see my next Madea movie I can find out if my initial impressions were correct, or if her character is better suited to some of the other adventures that Tyler Perry has created for her.

5/10

Here you go, my American friends, buy it here. We have a lot less available to us here in the UK, which may not be a bad thing.


Monday, 11 December 2017

Better Watch Out (2016)

Better Watch Out is the kind of film that you will enjoy more if you know very little about it. So, with that in mind, I am going to be very brief and vague in my plot summary. Briefer and more vague than usual, anyway.

The basic plot revolves around an attractive babysitter (Ashley, played by Olivia DeJonge) and her doting charge (Luke, played by Levi Miller). The two find themselves being terrorised by a dangerous stranger who has managed to cut off the phone lines AND the internet connection, leaving Ashley and Luke completely cut off from anyone who might be able to help them.

Written by Zack Khan and Chris Peckover, with the latter also taking on the directing duties, Better Watch Out is, as so many others have already said, a gleefully dark dance through Home Alone territory. If Kevin McCallister had been using baseball bats and guns instead of Christmas decorations and toys then you would see even more similarity. But it's also the differences here that make this such a fun film, as the script starts to play with and subvert the preconceptions that it deliberately planted in the minds of viewers. In fact, before even seeing one frame of the film you may have already seen the tagline: "You might be home but you're not alone."

Cast-wise, this is pretty spot on. DeJonge is believable as a babysitter that a teen lad could fall for and also someone who could be plucky and resilient when the need arises. Miller is a typical teenager, in many respects, and his performance is pitched perfectly between youthful silliness and extreme irritation. Ed Oxenbould is less annoying here than he was in The Visit (although I know a lot of people liked him in that role), playing Garrett, a friend of Luke, and there are solid supporting turns from Aleks Mikic, Dacre Montgomery, Virginia Madsen, and the ever-watchable Patrick Warburton.

Yet, due to a few different factors, this ends up not fully realising the potential that Khan and Peckover have buried at the heart of everything. It's hard to pinpoint all of the minor flaws that stop it from being something truly great but at times it isn't as much fun as it should be, at other times it isn't as nasty as it could be, and throughout many scenes it isn't quite as smart as it would like to be.

It's also unfortunate that a delayed release now has this coming out here in the UK just a couple of months after the superior The Babysitter (which has similar subversions to standard "babysitter in peril" movie tropes, although it lacks the extra fun of the Christmas trimmings). That film was sharper, funnier, and more violent (but only just), and it's a shame that Khan and Peckover didn't develop their screenplay much further beyond the Home Alone rope-a-dope.

It's still well worth a watch though, and I'd recommend picking it up when it gets a shiny disc release. Because it's always good to have even more options for your Christmas viewing selection.

7/10

UK folks, get your Home Alone fix here.
US readers can get a similar set here.
Citizens from elsewhere... I'm sorry, I can't create links for every national outlet (I would if I could, honest).




Sunday, 10 December 2017

All I Want For Christmas Is You (2017)

Where to begin, where to begin? When this animated film started I thought that I was going to hate it. It was a bit too cutesy, it wasn't the best animation, and I struggle to identify with the plight of a young girl who just wants a puppy for Christmas. And I was just waiting for the moment that would allow Mariah Carey to belt out her song.

Oh, didn't you know that this was tied in with Mariah Carey? Oh yes. There's apparently a book that this is based on (although the film is written by Temple Mathews, who has managed to turn the short story into a standard feature-length film), and Mariah provides voiceover narration, as well as MAYBE a rendition of her seasonal hit.

But I digress. Let me get back to hating this film. Except I stopped hating it, and I stopped hating it quite early on. There was still a part of me that resented the idea of a film being spun out from a small book (that I was previously unaware of) that was spun out from a hit Christmas song, and the animation wasn't exactly superb, but I started to enjoy this simple tale, and I had to concede that if I was a much younger viewer then I would probably love this.

Young Mariah (voiced by Breanna Yde) wants a puppy, as I have already mentioned. Unfortunately, her father is very allergic to dogs. That doesn't stop young Mariah having her heart set on picking up a dog named Princess, a dog that she thinks is meant to be hers. As a temporary remedy for her possible heartache, Mariah is given a puppy, Jack, who turns out to be quite a handful. He always seems to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, driving Mariah further and further up the wall with his puppy antics.

Directed by Guy Vasilovich, All I Want For Christmas Is You is a star vehicle that allows you to forget about that same star as you are drawn into the delightful story that unfolds. There are some other supporting characters, with the only other standout being a mischievous grandpa (voiced by Henry Winker), but this is all about a little girl and her puppy. Yes, you know the song is coming, and you know that it won't be the only song in the film, but that starts to matter less and less as the film actually, and surprisingly, earns a decent amount of goodwill from viewers.

You're unlikely to enjoy this much if you hate Mariah Carey (I have always quite liked her) as she provides enough narration to infuriate anyone familiar enough with her voice, and I am not going to pretend that this was designed to appeal to anyone other than children, or anyone having to watch the whole thing while sitting beside children, but this won me over. Which means that I even listened to the whole song over the end credits. And it's a great Christmas tune, one that I end up dancing and singing along to almost every time I hear it.

In fact . . . here it is.


6/10

All I Want For Christmas Is You can be purchased here in the UK.
American Mariah fans can buy it here.


Saturday, 9 December 2017

48 Christmas Wishes (2017)

It doesn't take much time spent in my company (in real life or here on my blog) to realise that I can often be quite an easy mark for certain movies. Shark film? I am happy (usually). Zombies in the mix? I am happy (usually). Diora Baird with more than 10 minutes of screentime? I am happy. And if you make a Christmas movie that features elves, a bit of magic, and a guest appearance from Santa himself then you can usually get me drunk on eggnog, paint my nose red, and call me Rudolph. So I figured that 48 Christmas Wishes wouldn't be that bad.

I was wrong.

The slight story concerns a couple of elves (played by Clara Kushnir and Ethan Yang) who have to mingle among some humans as they try to figure out what the kids want for Christmas. This is all because they lost a bag of post at Santa's HQ. As the elves attempt to right their wrong, they befriend a young boy named Blake (Liam MacDonald). Blake lives with his sister and mother (Madeline Leon). His father died, which creates a bit of a shadow over the usual Christmas cheeriness. Perhaps the elves can help this family unit feel like a family again.

Co-directed by Marco Deufemia and Justin G. Dyck, 48 Christmas Wishes is about as cheap and crude (in terms of the technical aspects) as you will see from even the most basic TV movies nowadays. I am not sure if the co-directors just didn't care or if they were given some kind of remit that meant everything had to be done as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Deufemia hasn't directed anything previous to this, but Dyck has a handful of similar features to his name (which I am sure I will see one day).

Writer Neale Kimmel can also take her share of the blame. It's no excuse nowadays to say "oh well, it is just aimed at kids". Any film aimed at kids can still have decent plotting and dialogue. This has neither, with both being so shoddily put together that it's almost a miracle to see the whole thing lurch from the opening scenes to the end credits without just breaking apart and crawling off to a pit where unfinished movies go to disintegrate into nothingness.

It wouldn't be fair of me to pick apart the performances of Kushnir, Yang, MacDonald, or Maya Franzoi (playing the one elf who stays back at HQ to try and cover for the absence of her colleagues) so I won't. Franzoi is fun, the rest aren't (although Yang has his moments). Leon does okay, but is stuck in the role of lone human adult involved in the main storyline. Everyone else stays at about the same level as Kushnir and MacDonald.

Without meaning to seem like a big meanie, this feels like a film that was made by someone who wanted to reward some kids, making a movie with them that they could contribute to and show to other kids. For all I know, maybe that WAS the way things worked out. And I am pleased for them if that is how the film came about. I am just not very pleased for anyone else who ends up watching the finished product.

3/10

Here is A link, for the curious.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Angel Of Christmas (2015)

Jennifer Finnigan is Susan Collins, a decidedly unfestive person who tends to view the holiday celebrations around her as an inconvenience rather than anything delightful. Given the chance to write a main story for her newspaper, Susan struggles to think of something that will satisfy readers and provide some of that essential Christmas spirit. When she is told some of the backstory of a family heirloom, the titular angel, she senses that she has the start of her piece. The angel has a history of bringing together loved ones, or at least leading people to where they need to be. And then, while trying to find her holly jolly happy spirit, Susan keeps bumping into a handsome, non-cynical artist named Brady (Jonathan Scarfe). Perhaps the angel has more work to do yet.

Directed by Ron Oliver (who also gave us the much more disappointing A Christmas Detour) , Angel Of Christmas is almost a perfectly fine bit of seasonal fluff. Finnigan is adequate in the lead role, Scarfe is just about cheery enough without being too annoying, and the two of them together have a good mix of initial incompatibility while still maintaining a chemistry/attraction. Everyone onscreen hits their marks as they run through some predictable story beats, the soundtrack is full of that blandly festive library of songs and tunes that channels like Hallmark and ABC must have stockpiled in a big basement somewhere, and the "accidents" that occur when the angel is scheming are played out at just the right level of cute magic. It may not be the most exciting thing you will watch this year but Christmas TV movies seldom are.

As well as our two leads, Tahmoh Penikett plays Derek, a man looking to put some sweet moves on Susan, Barclay Hope and Wanda Cannon play Susan's parents, and Mark Bendavid and Chloe McClay are two main characters shown in flashback to provide the origin of the tale of angelic magic. The performances vary, but everyone does better than the wooden angel, although some only just.

Where it all falls down is in the third act, which just stretches things a bit too far (yes, even for this kind of film). Writer Gary Goldstein may have been pleased with himself as he created extra coincidences and connections but it ends up turning the finale into something laughably akin to the worst soap opera plotting I have experienced (and I used to be, kind of, forced to watch Sunset Beach, for my sins). It's so bad, in fact, that I found myself rolling my eyes and saying "no, don't do it, oh please no" repeatedly during one main sequence, despite nobody else being around to hear my protests.

5/10

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



Thursday, 7 December 2017

Secret Santa (2015)

Written, directed, produced, and edited by Mike McMurran, Secret Santa is a lo-fi Christmas horror movie with a low budget and some high spirits. While it doesn't quite do enough to make you forget you're watching an independent film with barely enough going on to fill out the brisk 78-minute runtime, it is most definitely a fun time for slasher movie fans.

Not much time is wasted, with viewers introduced to someone in the opening scenes who is about to be despatched in an entertainingly messy death scene. Then it's time to introduce some more characters and turn up the sense of menace as more people start to receive Secret Santa gifts, a sign of their impending death (with the gift being used as the murder weapon, in a nice twist). What is motivating the killer, and who will be left by the time the end credits roll?

For people of a certain mindset, this film will be a lot of fun. The low budget is put to good use (with a lot being saved by most of the action taking place in one location, I would assume), the cast all have a good idea of where the performances should be pitched, and the gore, when it is shown, is very impressive, with an undoubted highlight being a bathtub scene that is as brutal and bloody as anything else I can think of right now.

And it's fair to give McMurran a lot of the credit for that, but it's also fair to give him some amount of flak. Because not content with letting the film get by on the strength of the performances, script, and the gore moments, he also feels the need to give the whole thing a "grindhouse" feeling, adding scratches and blemishes digitally to make it all look as if it was shot on film. If I'm wrong, and it has been known from time to time, then I will be happy to stand corrected by someone with more information (Mike, feel free to comment if I am talking out of the wrong end of my body).

Annette Wozniak is an appealing lead (and provides some titillation in the scenes that show her making money from her webcam job . . . without actually SHOWING her making money from her webcam job), Brent Baird is fine, Geoff Almond and Keegan Chambers are both quite amusing, and everyone else does well, mainly because of everyone being on the same page with the aforementioned pitching of the performances.

It sometimes feels as if there are just as many Christmas horror movies as there are standard Christmas movies, which is a bonus for those like myself who love both the horror genre and the yuletide season. But the downside of any subgenre being so popular is that you will inevitably also get a lot of bad with the good. Just ask any vampire or zombie movie fan. Secret Santa is one of the good ones. I look forward to seeing what McMurran does next, and hope it's as enjoyable as this.

7/10

Secret Santa is/was available on Amazon Prime at the moment. Or you can seek safer holiday fare.
Here is a large selection of Christmas movies to enjoy.
And American elves can pick the same set up here.