Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Yule Love It: inside (2016)

There usually comes a point while watching a remake when you have to make a conscious decision to forget the original movie. Some movies make that impossible. If a film is going to slavishly copy what has been done before then you just can't view it as one individual work of art. The same can happen, however, if the film moves too far away from the source material, making you wonder why they even bothered to create it as a remake.

I really like Inside, the 2007 horror movie from Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury that came along with a number of other extreme French horror movies during the first decade of this century. The two then followed that with Livid, another wonderful horror film, although one with a much more dream-like atmosphere throughout. I've not yet seen Among The Living, for all I know they may have been three for three at that point. I know that all seemed to be going well for them until they were tasked with delivering audiences Leatherface.

But I digress. I had deferred my viewing of Inside for so long because of my love for the original movie. I just didn't have any faith in a remake doing it justice. Enough time had passed though, so I figured it might finally be safe to give it a go.

The main story is the same, as you might expect. Things start with a car crash. Rachel Nichols is Sarah, a survivor of the crash. She's also very pregnant. It's Christmas Eve, Sarah is struggling with her loss, and considering what to do as motherhood approaches, when there is a knock at the door. It's a woman (Madeleine, played by Laura Harring) who seems to know Sarah. When refused entry, Madeleine eventually finds another way inside. She wants to take Sarah's baby, and will stop at nothing to get it.

The good thing about Inside is that it casts two women in lead roles that I always think should have more films under their belt. Nichols and Harring are both women I look forward to seeing onscreen, and both do their best with the material here, Harring having a bit more fun in the role of the villain (as you might expect). And that's about it for the praise portion of this review.

Inside is terrible. It mishandles any moments that it lifts directly from the original, and it also makes changes that don't work, despite obviously being put there to add some potential scares, tension, or kills. One main example is giving Sarah some hearing loss, which then allows her to have a hearing aid that can be lost and gained, depending on how director Miguel Ángel Vivas wants a scene to play out. Vivas also worked on the script, alongside the talented Jaume Balagueróand Manu Díez, and it's almost impossible not to put all of the blame for the lacklustre feeling of the final product on his shoulders. I cannot recall the last time I watched a horror movie that alternated so erratically between either underplaying or overplaying the scares. None of the BIG moments work as they should, leaving viewers underwhelmed, and simply bored, as it all winds to an ending that, well, I won't spoil . . . let's just say that it also fails to prove worthwhile when you think of the ending to the original movie.

Cynically designed to appeal to those who don't want to watch a nasty horror film with subtitles, this is the worst kind of remake. It loses the power of the original, mishandles everything that was done so well the first time around, and never shows an ounce of courage. Pitiful.

3/10

Buy the original here.


Monday, 30 December 2019

Mubi Monday: Vertigo (1958)

When I first saw it, many years ago, The Birds used to be my favourite Alfred Hitchcock movie. I have since changed my mind on that film. Despite the superb set-pieces, there are some other aspects to it that make it a surprisingly weak feature from the master of suspense. And so I moved my love to Psycho. And then Rear Window. Oh, and North By Northwest. The point I am trying to make is that ol' Hitch has a number of contenders that could easily be viewed as his very best. Vertigo should always be in the running.

James Stewart plays a detective, John Ferguson AKA Scottie, who is hired by an old acquaintance to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). There's a building sense that Madeleine is going to do herself some harm, a notion that solidifies into a reality when Madeleine tries to jump into a bay and drown herself. This is only a temporary reprieve, and Vertigo really kicks into gear after the halfway point, which sees Scottie encountering a woman named Judy Barton (Novak), a woman who seems very much like Madeleine in many ways.

It's always easy to admire the works of Hitchcock while also unfairly dismissing them as nothing more than exercises in thrills and tension, yet so many of his movies have a lot more to them than that. It just so happens that it's usually easier to recommend his films without having to go into too much detail. The real exploration and discussion of his classics is left to people who want to write essays, or even whole books, on them. If you think I am going to try and change that with this brief review then you can think again.

What I will do, however, is try to emphasise just why this is one of the greatest films of all time. Because it most certainly is.

Things have a good grounding in the script, by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor. Although it's structured in a way that makes some of the 128-minute runtime feel like padding, very few scenes fail to provide food for thought, either in terms of the plotting, the characterisations, or the psychological turbulence of the leads.

Then you have a cast all doing excellent work. Stewart gives another wonderful performance for a director he worked well with, moving from his likeable everyman persona into something darker as the film whirls and dives into ever-darkening waters. Novak gives two performances that are almost flawless, particularly as things develop in the second half of the movie and viewers start to wonder if Judy IS Madeleine, or just someone who looks very much like her. The third main player here is Barbara Bel Geddes as Marjorie Wood AKA Midge, a close friend to Stewart's character, and someone who has similar difficulties to him in processing some complex feelings that she at least manages to manage in a slightly more healthy manner (at least outwardly anyway). There are others (Tom Helmore as the husband of Madeleine, a number of very small roles for characters populating the world that these characters move through, but the focus stays tight on the central pair, for the most part).

Add the masterful direction to this and you have quite the heady brew. Hitchcock isn't afraid to show the psychological cracks deepening and affecting the environments around his leads, and he also manages to show the effects of vertigo with a dolly zoom effect, still used best in both this film and Jaws. Love, obsession, control, regret, madness, all of these things and more are explored in Vertigo, in a flowing and beautiful series of scenes, accompanied by yet another one of the best music scores from Bernard Herrmann.

Watch it, take it all in, watch it again, take more in, and be sure to have it to hand whenever you want to enjoy an absolute classic.

10/10

This is the set to get. It is stunning.



Sunday, 29 December 2019

Netflix And Chill: Holiday Rush (2019)

There's never a good time to fire an employee. Unless you're a proper Scrooge, Christmas is probably the worst time to do it. But that is what happens to popular DJ Rush Williams (Romany Malco) in this light and enjoyable bit of holiday fare.

Initially seeing no silver lining on the massive cloud that has descended upon his life, Rush is soon spurred into some positive action by his long-time associate, and close friend, Roxy (Sonequa Martin-Green). A bit of downsizing is required, a new home (well . . . it's their old home, one with less space but more emotional weight to the memories), and a plan to take over a small radio station and start again. If it's not going to be difficult enough already, the person responsible for firing Rush (Jocelyn, played by Tamala Jones) aims to try and make it impossible. There's also the not-insignificant matter of how the four children will adjust to the situation.

Although he has a 2013 festive special under his belt already, director Leslie Small is a strange choice for Holiday Rush. His background is rooted much more in comedy, particularly the live comedy of Kevin Hart, as well as numerous Comedy Jam specials. And Holiday Rush is not a comedy. So I assumed that Small had decided to put his faith in some writers with more experience in this kind of thing. Not so. In fact, neither Sean Dwyer nor Greg Cope White have an extensive list of writing credits, and they certainly haven't accrued the TV movie work that some have (usually those who know the formula in and out and can tweak it every time for a number of variations on the same themes).

Maybe this lack of over-familiarity helps to make Holiday Rush as good as it is, although I am not going to tell you that it's great. It manages to use some familiar tropes sparingly, yet remains focused on the story of a father trying to recover from a major blow while also ensuring that his children can acclimatise to the changes he is taking them through. A big part of the movie, an undercurrent that bubbles to the surface in a couple of crucial scenes, really delivers the lesson that it's okay to not be okay, and sometimes everyone needs someone there to help them, or maybe just be in their corner and continue to believe in them while they work beyond their own doubts. That may sound as trite and cheesy as anything else you could glean from any crop of TV movies, but it's done in a way that handles the unsubtle emotional manipulation better than many others I could point to.

Malco is a pleasant surprise in the main role, considering how much I assumed the material would pump up the bluster and swagger that I always think is his main persona (to be fair, I am basing that entirely on his turn in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which remains one of his strongest supporting turns). He has the confidence you expect him to have when doing what he loves, but that is tempered by the stress and worry building as everything seems to conspire against him. Martin-Green is very welcome in her role, an obvious close and supportive friend who seems to be at her best when giving someone else a kick in the pants. Darlene Love is a solid matriarch, playing the aunt who knows when to offer tough love and when not to push, and Amarr M. Wooten does his best with what he's given, which is to be the most difficult of the four children, viewing the problems as an indicator that there won't be enough money for him to go to the university of his choice, and viewing some decisions made as personal attacks on things that he holds dear. Jones is a fun baddie, and Deon Cole is a highlight, playing a supposed friend who doesn't really give due consideration to Rush and co. while his own job is safe.

Once again, as if it would ever be different for a film of this type, you know how things are going to end, you know that nobody will get themselves into any kind of situation that they won't be able to get out of, and you know that everything will be wrapped up in shiny paper with a pretty bow on top. But that doesn't stop this from being a very enjoyable slice of Christmas cake, helpfully coming in at an almost-perfect runtime and leaving you with a smile on your face as the credits roll.

6/10


Saturday, 28 December 2019

Shudder Saturday: The House At The End Of Time (2013)

The House At The End Of Time is a number of things. It's an interesting little puzzle. It's an emotional drama. And it is, despite what some may think, a horror movie. It may not conform to all of the expected genre conventions, but it deals with some painful loss and repercussions that ultimately add up to what many would consider to be a truly horrifying scenario.

Things begin in 1981. Dulce (Ruddy Rodríguez) is confused as she and her family are attacked by supernatural forces. Her  husband (Juan, played by Gonzalo Cubero) dies from a knife wound, and she watched her son pulled back through a doorway, where he then disappears. It all seems quite clear to the authorities. Dulce did it. Her prints are on the murder weapon. It's the only thing that makes sense. Thirty years later, Dulce is released, but she remains under house arrest. While staying at home, she starts to piece together a puzzle that may explain past events. But can anything be changed?

Written and directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, making his feature debut in the director's chair (with his only previous credit being a screenplay for a film I haven't seen, and hadn't previously heard of, Azotes De Barrio), this is the work of a film-maker who is confident both in his own capabilities and in the patience of an audience. It's not exactly unpredictable, or even all that unique, but it's all laid out in a way that shows how much care has been taken to make a worthwhile tale concerned about more than just any jumps and cheap scares.

Rodríguez is very good in her role, whether playing her character in the past or the present. She carries the air of someone who has experienced great loss, which in turn allows viewers to remember that something happened in those opening scenes of tragedy that defies explanation. Cubero has a smaller role, and his character is not someone you really like spending time with, but he does well. And both Rosmel Bustamante and Héctor Mercado do good work, playing the children of Dulce, the cause of both her joy and grief.

The big problem that the movie has, and it's a problem that has affected bigger movies than this one, is the fact that it reveals details long after most viewers will have figured everything out for themselves. That doesn't make those details and less appreciated, it just undermines what could have been a big strength of the film. There's no real sense of mystery, and anyone with even a passing interest in this kind of genre fare will have a good idea of where everything is heading from the opening act.

Hidalgo shows a lot of promise, and I'll be very interested to see what he does next, but I hope next time he can throw in a few more surprises, and maybe some more scenes that provide some classic horror moments.

6/10


Friday, 27 December 2019

Yule Love It: Surviving Christmas With The Relatives AKA Christmas Survival (2018)

Having years ago written the screenplay that would traumatise a generation of married men considering hooking up with a random woman (Fatal Attraction), James Dearden has now decided to write, and also direct, a film all about something with the potential to be equally difficult for many married couples: the family Christmas dinner.

Julian Ovenden and Gemma Whelan are Dan and Miranda, the married couple who have been tasked with delivering a traditional Christmas for visiting relatives. Money is tight, the house is having a lot of work done to it, there's a brand new oven due, and extra strain comes from Miranda's sister, Lyla (Joely Richardson), and her partner, Trent (Michael Landes). The kids have their squabbles, Dan has to try and figure out a way to help his ex-partner with their weed-addicted son, Harry (Jonas Moore), and Aunt Vicky (Ronni Ancona) seems one step away from fooling around with Trent, who seems to be keeping one eye on wherever his next drink may be and one eye on a chance to get frisky.

Pulled from some of Dearden's own experiences, and certainly full of moments that will be recognisable to anyone who has been put in charge of the big family dinner at Christmas time, Surviving Christmas With The Relatives has elements contained within it that work, but that is rarely down to the script or direction, both of which feel fairly perfunctory. It's odd to think that Dearden could somehow think of this being a worthwhile addition to the overstuffed selection of Christmas movies we get every year. I'd go as far as saying that many of the "lesser" TV movies churned out for this time of year have been a bit better than this. At least they stay focused on their simplistic aims, weaving together basic plot elements in a way that seems planned out (most of the time). This, on the other hand, feels like the work of someone who had too many ideas without realising that none of them worked well with the others being forced into screenplay form.

The cast are largely responsible for the moments that do work, so it's a shame that Dearden didn't cast his male characters as well as he cast his females. Whelan is incredibly likable , Richardson is incredibly frosty and entitled, and Ancona is the perfect mix of neuroticism, regret, cheer, and good-heartedness. Landes is actually also very good in his role, although he is helped by the fact that he's the one American adult in a family unit made up of bickering Brits. Ovenden doesn't ever get you fully on his side, nor does Moore, but it is difficult to say how much of that stems from them and how much from the script.

If you could at least get a sense that there was something, however incomplete, that Dearden was trying to comment on with his comedy drama then that would be some consolation. There isn't though. It's just a snapshot of moments: Eastern European workmen who aren't always appreciated for what they do, a vicar and his wife showing their own strained relationship, an elderly aunt who has a vibrator packed in her luggage, a pretty female visitor from another country who may end up making quite an impression on a stoned teenager. Hell, if this was an '80s John Hughes movie then it could have ended up as one of my favourites. But it isn't, and it won't. I don't see it ending up as a favourite for anyone.

4/10

You can buy it here.


Thursday, 26 December 2019

Yule Love It: Christmas At Dollywood (2019)

Although many would view this with some trepidation (it is, after all, a Christmas TV movie built around the brand of Dolly Parton and her theme park), I was optimistic. Director Michael Robison has quite a few of these under his belt, as does writer Nina Weinman. It would get me nostalgic for The Wonder Years (as any star vehicle for Danica McKellar would, she'll always be Winnie to so many of us, especially us Kevins). And it would benefit from the presence of Dolly, although I was under no illusions when it came to how much screentime she might have.

McKellar plays Rachel Lewis, an event planner who returns to her Tennessee home when given the chance to plan the titular Christmas at Dollywood. This sees her paired up with the head of operations, Luke (Niall Matter), who is also pursuing the General Manager vacancy, and doesn't see the need for Rachel to be given the responsibility. After an expectedly bumpy start to their relationship, things expectedly smooth out, and the pair soon recognise that they can work well together. They also have an interest in seeing one another outside of work.

And there you have it. The woman returning to her home town. The professionals also making time for the truly special moments of Christmas. A slippery slope towards what may be true love, with a stop or two on the way for hot chocolate and peppermint treats.

Weinman's script is about as safe as you can get (unsurprising, considering they are also using that Dolly name to sell this), but that ensures that this is right in the middle ground, when compared to all of the movies of this type. There aren't any great set-pieces, nor are there any moments that will make you cringe (well, not if you've seen enough of these without cringing already). Robison's direction is professional and light, showing his confidence in the leads, and the big star name, to let this pleasantly meander through the glimpses of Dollywood that we get to see, and of course it was shot on location there. Although all of these movies have the look and feel of a TV movie, this really makes the most of the resources at their disposal, and manages to feel as if it was given a little bit more money, and just a bit more polish. That may not have been the case, but Robison makes it seem that way, and good on him for the end result.

McKellar and Matter work well together. I wouldn't say that sparks fly, there's no snow-melting heat coming off either of these two individuals, but they're both appealing enough individually, making their scenes together little more than a pleasant waiting game en route to the predictable ending. Zoë Noelle Baker is less annoying than some child actors I have seen lately, so her turn as Ava, Rachel's young daughter, do nothing to harm the picture. The same can be said of the supporting turns from Christine Cattell (Rachel's mother), Garwin Sanford (Rachel's father), and Pauline Egan, the woman who really gives Rachel her big chance. And you get a little bit of Dolly. Not much, but just enough to be reminded of why she's remained such an iconic star for so many decades. She doesn't come close to the kind of performances she gave when actually playing other characters, but she does well enough.

Dollywood may not be enough of a gimmick to make this more appealing to the majority of people who watch these movies, but it's a nice bonus for those who are fans of Dolly. And why wouldn't you be a fan of Dolly?

5/10


Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Prime Time: Nativity Rocks! (2018)

How? How do we now have four of these bloody things? Especially when they keep getting worse. Well, that's not strictly true. The series seems to have bottomed out with the third instalment, making anything else released both as awful and slapdash as anyone still watching deserves. Which includes me, masochist that I am.

After his small part in the previous movie, Simon Lipkin gets to move front and centre here. He is the new Mr. Poppy, Jerry, cousin of the old Mr. Poppy (yes, Marc Wootton finally decided to move on from the series). Turning up at a school, Jerry is allowed to just immediately get himself involved with the Christmas musical that is being planned, a rock opera. Because schools are absolutely able to do that, as has been shown in every previous Nativity! movie. The rock opera needs to be done right, and there are a couple of main sub-plots, one involving a small boy who has parents too busy to take much notice of him, and one involving a child refugee separated from his father.

Okay, I will begrudgingly admit that, despite my harsh words opening this review, this fourth Nativity! movie feels ever so slightly better than the third one. If there was someone better in the lead role, it could have been an actual decent movie. But we get Lipkin in the lead role, a man who decides to perform his role as a cross between Wootton and Jack Black, with the skill of neither.

Writer-director Debbie Isitt seems to have made this her main focus over the past few years (I noticed there is a stage show version now, and I am assuming she will have at least some credit for that). None of these films have been very well-received, critically, but I know that the first two did great business. I can even see the appeal in the first one. And the second, which tries to repeat the main trick while adding in some David Tennant. But I am surprised that enough people saw, and enjoyed, the third to warrant a fourth. Will there be a fifth? Knowing my luck, probably.

I've already complained enough about Lipkin, spending any more time criticising him would feel too much like tripping up a small puppy, but there's a decent supporting cast here to at least partially make up for his central awfulness. Craig Revel Horwood may not be one of the better players, but he has a bit of fun with his role, giving us the main villain this time around. Daniel Boys, Helen George, and Celia Imrie all do well as the main adults caring for the children, Hugh Dennis and Anna Chancellor are good as the parents not paying their child much attention, and Ruth Jones brightens up the second half of the movie with her presence. Brian Bartle (Doru, the refugee) and Rupert Turnbull (Barnaby, the child with "absent" parents) aren't the best in their roles, but they don't do a terrible job, and I've sat through much worse child performances. You also get small roles for Meera Syal and Jessica Hynes, with the latter bursting in near the end with just the right amount of energy and humour to perk things up.

Not the worst, but that's a very low bar set by the previous movie, Nativity Rocks! feels like a return trip to a well that dried out some years ago. I really hope that they don't make another one. But I know I'll end up watching it IF it happens.

3/10

You can buy a set here.




Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Yule Love It: The Nutcracker In 3D (2010)

Obviously, first of all, watching The Nutcracker In 3D in 2D feels like it's diminishing the experience slightly. Never fear, however, because this film being in 3D is the least of the "selling points". Oh, it has such sights to show you. I almost didn't include it in my roster of festive film reviews, but the recent thoughts of people losing their minds over Cats reminded me that other people deserved to hear about it.

Essentially a telling of the classic tale, with Elle Fanning in the role of Mary, the main young girl who finds herself going on an adventure with a nutcracker who comes to life, this is a wild fever-dream interpretation of the material, with additions that just genuinely boggle the mind. Don't believe me? You will, by the time you have sat through a musical number which allows Albert Einstein (played by Nathan Lane) to sing a song about relativity to a famous melody from the suite. Yes, that happens. And it's one of the most memorable moments.

Director Andrey Konchalonskiy (AKA Andrei Konchalovsky) also co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Solimine. Konchalovskiy, director of such '80s hits as Runaway Train and Tango & Cash, THAT Konchalovskiy. He has mixed things up over the years, and I'm not saying that making those action movies means he should give us nothing but more films in the same vein, but this seems like a wild departure, even when considered alongside his more varied films from the past couple of decades. It's so unrelentingly bizarre, in relation to the main choices made, that it becomes something you need to see, just to give yourself a badge of honour. I haven't even mentioned the talking monkey, or any of the other supporting characters who help to make up the bizarre menagerie populating this cinematic world.

There's also a good cast in place for the main roles. Fanning is good as Mary, Aaron Michael Drozin does just fine as her brother, Max, and Lane is at least fun in the role of "Uncle Albert". Richard E. Grant is the father, Shirley Henderson is the voice of The Nutcracker, and John Turturro and Frances de la Tour provide nightmare fuel with their portrayals of, respectively, The Rat King and The Rat Queen. Turturro takes the first prize for terrifying children, especially in the one or two moments that have him snarling in a way that turns his face more ratty while his civil facade slips a la Bilbo Baggins in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring.

Despite the oddness of it all, The Nutcracker In 3D (in 2D) somehow manages to stay fairly uninteresting throughout most of the runtime. The direction from Konchalonskiy is on par with that of an ambitious festive special for the BBC (to be fair, they probably could do something much more impressive than this nowadays). Perhaps the problems lie with the tale itself, which is better suited to a theatrical performance than any attempted narrative film, but that doesn't let anyone off the hook when they come together to have a stab at it.

3/10

You CAN buy it here. But don't.


Monday, 23 December 2019

Mubi Monday: Lonely Are The Brave (1962)

I am sure that it has happened before, but I am very much aware of the fact that when I stumble across a great film like this one, and it IS great, film fans reading my review may well end up rolling their eyes and muttering "well . . . duh." But here I go anyway.

Kirk Douglas is John W. "Jack" Burns, a cowboy in a world in which very few cowboys are left. We first see him sorting out his horse as an airplane flies overhead, a jarring juxtaposition of two very different worlds. Jack is a tough, independent guy, and when he hears that an old friend has been placed in prison he gets himself put in there alongside him, ready to plan an escape. The friend, however, doesn't want to spend his life on the run. Jack doesn't mind though. He'll keep moving anyway.

Directed by David Miller, Lonely Are The Brave is an adaptation of an Edward Abbey novel brought to the screen by Dalton Trumbo. While I am not familiar with Miller, his work behind the camera here is pretty spot on, and he's able to make the most of the superb script and winning performance from Douglas. This isn't necessarily saying that the world still needs men like Douglas in it, but it does question why so many feel threatened by him, and what he represents, and it shows how much more there is to the man than just a figure on a horse.

As the man hanging on to a "lost" way of life, Douglas is at his very best here. He's tough, charming, frustratingly obstinate, and believable. These qualities frustrate Jerry Bondi (Gena Rowlands), aggravate Deputy Sheriff Gutierrez (George Kennedy) when Jack is residing in his prison, intrigues Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) when Jack is attempting to evade capture, and makes him a very memorable character to spend time with. And all of those other people I have just mentioned give equally great performances, in different ways. Rowlands has an air of worry and slight exasperation about her, Kennedy is a sonofabitch, and Matthau gives yet another one of his weary and pragmatic turns.

One of many films to show a fading American dream, Lonely Are The Brave stands out because of how it makes use of the archetypal cowboy figure. That's interesting enough, yet it's even more interesting to view this nowadays and see how much it feels like a template for a certain other movie about someone strong and self-sufficient returning to a small town and butting heads with authority figures. Yes, I'd happily suggest that First Blood owes more than a small debt to this, and maybe it was in the back of David Morrell's mind as he worked on the novel that would be released a decade after this movie.

There are just one or two minor omissions here that hold it back from being perfect, a step from the middle section to the third act that leaves it feeling a bit less strongly structured as it could be, but I could easily see myself bumping this score up in the future. Part of me wants to rewatch it already, and I just finished it less than an hour ago.

9/10

I'm not even going to link to a poor disc copy here. This NEEDS better treatment.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

Netflix And Chill: The Knight Before Christmas (2019)

Netflix continue to try making their mark on the traditional Christmas movie market and, once again, there are a mix of pros and cons with their approach.

Vanessa Hudgens (who did such a great job in The Princess Switch last year) is a young woman, Brooke, who has everything in life, except for a man. And every woman needs a man, of course. Although... well, we will come back to this point soon. Anywayyy, that looks set to change when a Knight (Sir Cole, played by Josh Whitehouse) is sent forward in time by an old crone (Ella Kenion), enabling him to complete whatever quest he is supposed to figure out needs his attention, and enabling Brooke to realise that she doesn't mind the idea of true love.

Like almost every other Christmas movie they have produced over the past few years, with one or two notable exceptions, this one works in terms of the simple entertainment it aims to provide, yet feels as if those who made it were too wary to fully embrace the conventions of these specific types of movies. You get moments you expect, but you get them in a diluted, "diet soda", form. The sweetness and sense of immediate satisfaction are both there, they're just lacking the unabashed pure sugar rush.

Hudgens is good enough in the lead role, but it doesn't make the use of her talent that The Princess Switch did. That would seem to be the fault of writer Cara J. Russell, who has a fairly short list of credits, compared to the kind usually amassed by people in this field (although everyone starts somewhere), and perhaps that explains her approach to the material lacking a confidence in just how much viewers will welcome this kind of thing leaning hard into the expected "bucket list items". Director Monika Mitchell has a bit more experience, with both standard TV movies and Christmas TV movies, but doesn't show it here, which adds to the feeling that both she and Russell were slightly hampered by Netflix, who somehow seem to think that they can't just dive right to the ground and make snow angels while we look on and smile.

Although Hudgens is fine, Whitehouse can be given a little praise for his fun, light performance. Sir Cole may be ridiculously unfazed by things around him in the modern world (cars, TV, phones, Alexa, etc), but Whitehouse plays up the wide-eyed innocence of his character well enough. Emmanuelle Chriqui is the other main lead, friend to Hudgens and parent to the main child involved in the storyline (Claire, played competently enough by Isabelle Franca), and does well enough in her role.

It's telling that you can get all the way to the grand finale here without really knowing what the main lesson to be learned is, or even what quest Sir Cole needs to complete to make things right. Netflix want to hand you gifts, but they're not sure if you'll like them. So they make stuff, move towards embracing the home-made charm of it all, and then chicken out by polishing it up too much and packaging it with a gift voucher. You may read this and wonder what the hell I am on about, but if you're a fan of Christmas movies then you know I am right. Come on, Netflix, just knock back the eggnog, have the snowball fight, add more montages, wear the ugly sweater with pride, and stop pretending to be above it all.

5/10


Saturday, 21 December 2019

Shudder Saturday: Inner Demon (2014)

Sarah Jeavons plays Sam, a young woman who is kidnapped by a couple of depraved killers, in this horror movie written and directed by Ursula Dabrowsky. Not to worry though, it's not long until Sam escapes their clutches. She escapes the trunk of their car, thanks to a combination of intelligence and a tyre iron, and ends up in a cabin in the middle of some woods. Of course. And can you guess who lives in that cabin? Yes, I think you may be one step ahead of me already. And we may all be a step or two ahead of Dabrowsky.

The more movies I watch, and I watch a LOT of movies, the harder it becomes to be harsh on a film like Inner Demon. I usually have a full conversation/argument with myself while writing the review, sometimes never coming to a final decision until I get to the very end. I think about how nothing in the movie is that bad, how there are so many worse movies out there, and how Dabrowsky has tried to give viewers something familiar, but with a twist. And then the rest of my brain starts to drown me out, because I am making excuses.

Inner Demon is a bad film. It may not be as bad as many other films, but that doesn't stop it from being a bad film. The cast have nothing to worry about, the acting from the main leads is consistently good enough, but they just can't elevate the material they have to work with. Indeed, I wish they'd been given more to do. Jeavons is asked to simply look scared and bleed for most of the runtime, while Kerry Ann Reid, Andreas Sobik, and Todd Telford are all irrational and agitated killers. There's no interesting dialogue between these characters, nothing to reveal anything more about them beyond convenient disagreements that move the plot forward.

You may think that Dabrowsky has instead spent her time focusing on making her movie as dark and tense as possible. Not so. This is a film that starts strong, despite some confusion in the editing department, before pulling back for an hour of nothing really interesting happening. There's some death, yes, but it's not actually interesting, mainly thanks to us having no interest in the characters who could live or die. There's also something brought in to the finale that allows this to be a bit different from many other movies about a captured potential murder victim trying to make their escape. Treated differently, with more woven throughout the rest of the script, this could have been a nice little addition. As it stands, it feels like something thrown in for the sake of it.

Although this is the second film from Dabrowsky, it feels as if she has maybe put herself in a holding pattern since her 2009 debut, Family Demons, which seems to have some overlap (but I am only going by the plot summary on IMDb here). I'm not in a rush to see her first movie, but maybe I'll get to it one day. In the meantime, perhaps those who have seen both can let me know if they feel as similar as I suspect they might.

I hope Dabrowsky tries something new with her next movie. Some may like this more than I did, but I doubt anyone will be clamouring for more of the same.

3/10


Friday, 20 December 2019

Yule Love It: The Christmas List (1997)

Mimi Rogers plays Melody Parris in this wonderful little festive TV movie that mixes in all of the expected story beats with something just different enough to make it all feel a bit less tired than other examples I could point to.

Melody has a decidedly average life. She is passed over for promotion at her work (she sells fragrances in a department store, and has a gift for being able to pick someone the perfect scent once they have answered some simple questions), her boyfriend won't make any major commitment, and she knows that her Christmas will be another time during which she settles for less than she really wants, partly due to the fact that her mother never really goes all out with the Christmas dinner traditions. But things start to change for Melody when she helps out a young boy (Danny, played by Bill Switzer). It's the season for those who have been on the nice list to be rewarded, which may explain the change in Melody's fortunes.

Directed by Charles Jarrott, a sure hand who had a lengthy filmography spanning work for cinema and TV over six decades, The Christmas List feels more like a fun film that is making use of the trappings of Christmas, as opposed to a Christmas movie with a plot shoehorned in there. This may not seem like a big difference, and I cannot speak to how writer Marie Weiss (who gave us both this and The Ref) worked out the storyline, but it's enough to make it stand out from a (over-)crowded field. There are still limitations in place, and no surprises, but there are plenty of moments that prove to be far more rewarding than, for example, the standard scene we have seen so many times featuring the leading lady saving a festive event at the last minute with her sheer love of Christmas. I may be exaggerating, but you know I am close enough to the truth.

Rogers is also giving a performance that doesn't feel like it's constrained by the usual TV movie boundaries. That's not a polite way of saying that everyone else who acts in these specific types of TV movies is doing a bad job. It's just refreshing to see someone not having to act as ignorant of the magic starting to happen around them, which is what happens most of the time. Melody starts to notice the strangeness early on, and it is up to her to try to turn things in her favour or let the opportunity pass her by, which allows Rogers to play her character very naturally, with a building sense of optimism as more things begin to fall into place for her. Switzer is also very good in his role, managing to be the kind of kid who befriends a random adult without being too annoying, and Rob Stewart works hard to make his character more appealing after making an unflattering first impression.

There are also good turns from Stella Stevens (Melody's mother), Enuka Okuma (Naomi, a colleague and friend), and Madison Graie as April May, the woman who gets a promotion ahead of Melody, despite having nowhere near her knack for actually selling the customers the right product.

Despite my praise, however, and despite the fact that I have mentioned the ways in which this doesn't feel like a Christmas TV movie, there are a number of ways in which it decidedly DOES feel like one. That's no bad thing. It is what it is supposed to be, after all. It just means that it falls short when compared to most movies that are not created to that remit. You'll still know most of the story beats, you can see the ending coming a mile away, and an oft-repeated magical "vision" of people wearing Santa hats when Melody realises she is being blessed with good fortune again is a bit too cheesy for it's own good.

One worth tracking down though, and I would happily watch it again.

6/10

Here is a DIFFERENT movie with the same title. Might be fun.
That different movie is also available here, but with the same region coding.


Thursday, 19 December 2019

Yule Love It: I Trapped The Devil (2019)

Urgh, how many times does it happen? You go round to visit relatives during the Christmas holidays, they seem a bit edgy, and then you go and find out that they've only gone and bloody trapped the devil in their basement. That's all well and good, Uncle Brian, but are you putting out any more Doritos to let us mop up this home-made salsa dip or what!

Written and directed by Josh Lobo, his feature debut coming along a couple of years after his work on the wonderful Dave Made A Maze, I Trapped The Devil is exactly what I just described. Minus the Doritos dilemma. Matt (AJ Bowen) and Karen (Susan Burke) drop in to see Steve (Scott Poythress). Steve doesn't seem too relaxed, and it is eventually revealed that he has trapped the devil in a room in his basement. That's hard to believe, of course, and the film plays out as Matt and Karen try to help Steve, all while becoming more and more wary of whoever, or whatever, has been trapped.

In many ways, Lobo has done himself proud. He's assembled three good cast members, sensibly created a premise that forces everyone to stay in a single location, and has a good idea right at the heart of things. Unfortunately, he doesn't do enough with any of the elements. The idea isn't ever explored in a satisfying way, nor extrapolated to turn into something that had the potential to be ten times more interesting, the cast spend too many scenes (almost the entire movie, really) just arguing with one another, and even the location is mistreated. You don't get enough geography reminding you of the exact dimensions of the house that the main characters are in, and there are sequences showing visions that could step outwith the confines of the building yet don't.

In fact, it's a very good job that Lobo managed to attain the services of Bowen, Burke, and Poythress, all of whom do their absolute best to make the script work. They can't quite manage it, but nobody could. Instead of interesting philosophical tangents and musings on good and evil, and what can be done to stop one while promoting the other, Lobo is happy to have characters effectively go round in slightly decreasing circles. Some details come out while viewers wait to see how things will end, but they're revealed and then discarded, like so many ripped paper hats after a lively dinner party.

The technical side of things is where the film also wins some points. Despite the obvious low budget, Lobo creates some interesting moments, creating the atmosphere of a feverish nightmare throughout, with a couple of standout images in the aforementioned visions.

I may seem a bit harsh on this, I Trapped The Devil certainly deserves praise for at least trying something a bit different from so many other horror movies, and also having it set on Christmas Eve, which you could also choose to consider as a deliberate choice, considering what is celebrated at that time of year. Is that what Lobo intended? I'm really not sure, but he gives us a couple of good scenes and a great last minute. It's just a shame that the journey wasn't any better.

4/10

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


Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Prime Time: Christmas In The City (2013)

Both director Marita Grabiak and writer Barbara Kymlicka have a fair amount of experience in the world of TV, and Christmas In The City is exactly the sort of competent TV movie you would expect from people who know what they're doing in the field. It has one major negative, which I will get to soon enough.

Ashley Williams is Wendy Carroll, a young woman who is struggling to keep the bankers from claiming the candy store she now runs, a store that used to belong to her deceased father. Heading to the city for the holidays, with her daughter (Grace) by her side, Wendy wants to get herself a holiday job that will help to pay off some debt and save the store. Thanks to her good friend (Angie, played by Shanola Hampton), and the miracle of convenient plotting, Wendy ends up working in a department store, and getting along famously with the boss (Tom Wolman, played by Jon Prescott). Unfortunately, the store is being given a makeover by Teanna Musk (Ashanti), a woman who has little time for any traditional Christmas trimmings that get in the way of converting sales.

Working through the usual selection of boxes to be checked for this kind of fare, Christmas In The City is as unbelievable as it is enjoyable. This sits in that sweet spot of being good enough to enjoy while it is on, yet not good enough to completely distract you if you have it on the TV while you're doing important Christmas prep. The plot is ridiculously simple, I probably said a lot more in the previous paragraph than I needed to, and the ending is obvious from the very opening minute of the film, but it goes down well with your mince pies and hot chocolate.

A large part of the appeal comes from the adult cast members. Williams is someone I have always enjoyed onscreen, and she's just as sweet and likeable here as ever. Hampton does just fine in the role of the bestie, and Prescott is the usual handsome guy with plenty of money at his disposal who takes most pleasure from the kind of seasonal traditions that money can't buy. Then you get Ashanti, who has a lot of fun being the over the top villain of the piece, striding in to the toy department, flanked by her beefy assistants, firing people, setting up new advertising displays, and, of course, even firing Santa.

So what is the one major negative? I hate to say it, but it's Kylie Noelle Price (credited here as just Kylie Price), the little girl who plays Grace. She is, despite stiff competition in this field, the most annoying and awful child actor I have yet seen in one of these festive TV "treats". Seriously, I would have enjoyed this film a lot more if the child had been put out of the picture somehow, perhaps used as a plot device to bring everyone together again in time for the grand finale. That didn't happen, and every moment that Price acts onscreen is a moment that made me want to rip out my own shinbones and drive them through my skull.

An above average slice of sweetness, dragged down to just average by that one performance, Christmas In The City should please people who know exactly what they're looking for from these movies.

5/10

Here are some different movies you can buy.


Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Yule Love It: Holiday Hell (2019)

Although not exactly dripping with tinsel and bright baubles throughout, Holiday Hell has enough Christmas elements contained within it to count as a Christmas horror movie, and I am counting it as such. It's an anthology film, with the wraparound story concerning a young woman (Amelia, played by Meagan Karimi-Naser) looking for a perfect last-minute gift for her sister. That's her reason for being in a strange shop, owned by a shopkeeper played by Jeffrey Combs, and leads to her hearing some tales about the items available to buy.

The first tale is "Dollface". It's not good. A group of irritating teens hang about in a house where something bad happened. Something bad happens. Next up is "The Hand That Rocks The Dreidel", a tale that gets a bonus point from me simply because of the quality pun power of the title (which I am sure I have used myself, as well as From The Dreidle To The Grave, when thinking up ideas for Hanukkah horrors). It's about a boy and his new rabbi doll, which is definitely the kind of odd gift that kids sometimes receive and isn't really just a movie plot device, honest. Third, the best of them all, is "Christmas Carnage", the story of a man who goes over the edge while wearing a Santa suit. Last, and surprisingly forgettable, is "Room To Let", before viewers head back to the store for one last time.

Okay, aside from Combs and Karimi-Naser, what can I tell you about Holiday Hell to recommend it to you? Joel Murray is the damaged individual at the centre of the madness in "Christmas Carnage", and that is definitely worth your time. What else? Nothing, sadly.

Written by Jeff Ferrell and Jeff Vigil, who also directed alongside Jeremy Berg (who is the only name I recognise here, having previously given us The Device, which was okay) and David Burns, this is a shockingly lazy piece of work, slapped together with the minimum amount of thought and effort, utilising genre tropes that we've seen so many times before, and usually done a lot better than this. Even the best tale is something that we've seen in plenty of other movies, in terms of both the mad Santa moments and also the downtrodden male figure twitching and seething until he snaps and gets his revenge on all those he feels wronged him. It's fine to work with familiar elements of the genre, of course, but there's a sense in every tale that those involved think they are giving things a fresh spin. They're not. Unless coating them in a thin layer of excrement amounts to the same thing.

Christmas and horror go together like Christmas pudding and custard. From the fireside tales of creepiness to the more modern staple of the killer Santa, or killer Krampus (and be wary when checking out any film that has tried to get some extra viewers just by sticking the word Krampus in the title). So it's surprising that nobody has really managed to put everything together into a more effective seasonal horror anthology. A Christmas Horror Story managed to be okay, All The Creatures Were Stirring tried, but wasn't too successful, and we're left with the realisation that none of them have yet to give us something as good as the "All Through The House" segment in Tales From The Crypt. Which is a great shame.

Avoid this one. Even if you're just trying to kill some time after overeating during the holidays.

3/10

It's here, if you're American and wanting to waste some cash.



Monday, 16 December 2019

Mubi Monday: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

One of those films I had heard about over the years, but without knowing what it was REALLY about, Two-Lane Blacktop is, it turns out, a film that takes some archetypes and uses them to explore life as a petrol-head. I'm not going to try to explore the extra layers here, but I think it's worth mentioning that there's definitely a bit more to it than JUST people driving in fast cars.

James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play The Driver and The Mechanic, two men who are travelling across America, racing other drivers along the way. They pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird) on their travels, and end up making a big wager with the driver of a fine G. T. O (Warren Oates). The winner will have an extra car, but it soon becomes clear that the race is actually secondary to the appreciation of the vehicles they are driving.

Tonally akin to something that crosses the work of Walter Hill and Richard Linklater, Two-Lane Blacktop is very simple, in so many ways, and yet also impressively insightful into the mindset of those who view the car as the means of freedom to go wherever they like, without knowing where they may want to be going.

The script, by Rudy Wurlitzer (credited as Rudolph Wurlitzer) and Will Corry, is deceptively slight, stitching together a number of driving encounters (Harry Dean Stanton stands out, despite his short amount of screentime) and allowing time for the meandering conversations of the main characters to form a kind of passive philosophy.

Director Monte Hellman excels at keeping things focused where they should be, either on the characters or on the road ahead. The more sedate in-car moments are well-shot, and you really get a sense of speed when anyone puts their foot down harder on the pedal. Much like any long car journey, you get a mix of exciting thrills and more common "downtime", although those hoping for some kind of stunt-filled racing flick will be sorely disappointed.

Taylor and Wilson aren't all that memorable, essentially establishing themselves to anyone else in relation to the cars, but Bird does well with a role that could have easily been irritating, and Oates is exceptional, an older driver who isn't quite on the same wavelength as the younger men, but certainly has an idea of the experience that they keep seeking while driving along.

Exploring one of the modern mythical elements of America, the freedom of the open highway (all countries have roads to drive along, but there's something . . . extra about those that cut across the USA), Two-Lane Blacktop wonders if it is all it is cracked up to be, and may even leave you wondering if the chance to experience it, in such a pure way, was ever really there.

8/10

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


Sunday, 15 December 2019

Netflix And Chill: A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby (2019)

There are some things about Christmas you probably love, and some things about it you probably don't really enjoy. It is nice, for example, to catch up with family members and loved ones you may not have seen throughout the year. But then you tend to have to stay a bit too long, drowsy after the food and/or drink, trying to avoid stepping in any conversational minefields, and just yearning to be back at home with your slippers on and nobody criticising you for dozing off. That is the good with the bad, something you wouldn't miss but never fully enjoy while going through it. And it is in this territory that the A Christmas Prince movies sit. I mean that as a compliment. It is safe, familiar, enjoyable, and can make you feel a bit dopey by the end of it.

The plot is hardly worth summarising, but I will do it anyway. The beloved royal couple are awaiting the pitter patter of tiny royal feet, and the last duty they will perform before the due date is the signing of a royal treaty. But that royal treaty disappears, which is a right royal mess for everyone.

With Nathan Atkins (AKA Nate Atkins) writing the screenplay once again, and director John Schultz returning, after his work on the second movie, this is very much a case of everyone clearly sticking with a good formula that works for them. From the cast to the plot beats, this is almost completely interchangeable with the previous two movies. It's simple stuff, building up tension with a big problem that you have no doubt will be solved before the end credits run, but that's part of its charm.

Rose McIver is still a good lead, now a Queen after the journey of romance that led to the wedding of the previous film, and Ben Lamb is still suitably bland as King Richard. You still have the great supporting turns from Alice Krige and Sarah Douglas, although both seem to have much less screentime in this instalment, and Theo Devaney is once again tasked with making his character, Simon, seem like he could be the villain of the piece. Kevin Shen and Momo Yeung are King Tai and Queen Ming, Crystal Yu is Lynn, who comes along with them, and it is this group who are supposed to be enjoying the Aldovian hospitality, signing the treaty, and then heading home. Oh, and Honor Kneafsey is back in the role of Princess Emily, and manages not to be too annoying.

Viewed critically, and reviewed by standard criteria, this is a bad film. But it gets a pass, because it's one of those films made simply to be a Christmas movie, and we all know that they usually provide different pleasures than other movies. Out of all of the Christmas movies about someone making an impression on a royal family member (and there are a LOT of them), A Christmas Prince remains among the best, thanks to the better cast members. This feels like a natural stopping point, yet I know that I will keep watching them as long as they keep making them (especially if the next one sees the royals trying to be incognito and "normal" while visiting Amber's family in New York - kind of like a clean and Christmassy take on Coming To America).

6/10


Saturday, 14 December 2019

Shudder Saturday: The Baby (1973)

The Baby is possibly the oddest, and oddly brilliant, film that you have yet to see. And it's easy to understand why. First of all, I don't think it was easily available for many years, at least not in any physical format. Second, the advertising makes it seem like something quite different from the film it actually is. Third, it's not one that people see and rush to recommend to everyone else. So here I am, recommending this to everyone else.

The plot, on the surface, is quite simple. Anjanette Comer is a woman named Ann Gentry, a social worker (basically) who takes an interest in the Wadsworth family. Her main concern is with the baby (played by David Mooney, billed as David Manzy). Baby is actually a grown young man, but he has been kept as a baby, either through his own state of mental health, the way his family has decided to treat him, or both. Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) doesn't take kindly to having her parenting method questioned, and things become more tense between Ann and the Wadsworth family.

Writer Abe Polsky doesn't have a very big filmography, only four movies and some TV work, but if any of his other features come close to this then I will have to check them out. He takes what could easily have been a laughable, clumsily-mishandled, concept and creates enough interesting shading in a number of the main characters to make it all work, and work well. It helps that he peppers the film with some jaw-dropping moments, and leads viewers to a very rewarding, and ever-so-dark, finale.

Director Ted Post has quite a few more credits making up his own body of work, but I cannot think of any that come close to this. He works well with the script, and takes turns showing viewers things to make them uncomfortable before then moving back to keep other moments more disturbing by allowing viewers to extrapolate and imagine how bad things can get.

Although we're now aware of adults who have spent time acting like babies (to do with giving up control and regressing to a state of . . . well, I cannot explain it as I don't understand it), thanks to the likes of Jerry Springer and online access to show a wider variety of lifestyle choices and kinks and fetishes, The Baby holds up so well nowadays because the man at the centre of it all IS seemingly a baby, despite his physical appearance. This isn't played for laughs, and perhaps back in the early '70s this would have been even harder for people to view as a piece of schlocky entertainment (considering how many American households had to adjust their homes a lives to veterans who had returned from the Vietnam War with less mobility and independence than they had before they went). It's handled perfectly, without spoonfeeding viewers (no pun intended).

A big helping of praise has to go to Mooney for his physical performance in the titular role. He's arguably the only innocent character onscreen, and even his worse moments have to be dismissed as simply the behaviour of a baby. Comer is very good, acquitting herself very well opposite Roman, who does her best to dominate every scene she is in. Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor are fine as the two females who make up the family unit, Michael Pataki is amusingly sleazy for almost all of his screentime, and Erin O'Reilly does well with her small role, a babysitter involved in the strangest and most twisted moment.

Not one to recommend without reservations, I nevertheless recommend this without reservations. You may hate it, you may be repulsed by it, or you may end up loving it as much as I do. You'll absolutely not forget it though, that much is certain.

9/10

You can buy the movie here.


Friday, 13 December 2019

Yule Love It: Bernard And The Genie (1991)

A British Christmas TV movie forgotten by most (including myself, it was put back on my radar by someone mentioning it as one they still enjoyed), Bernard And The Genie is strange and silly, ever-so-British, and not without pleasures for anyone who likes the central cast.

Alan Cumming plays Bernard Bottle, a man tasked with buying fine art for his employer (Charles Pinkworth), who then tries to sell it for huge profits. Well, that WAS his job. He gets fired at the very beginning of this tale, and his boss really wants to make his life miserable. It couldn't get much worse, as Bernard soon finds out that his girlfriend, Judy (Andrée Bernard) is sleeping with his best mate, Kevin (Kevin Allen). On the plus side, he finds himself with a genie (Josephus, played by Lenny Henry) and a way to make anything he wishes come true. Not just three wishes, oh no, but as many wishes as he wants.

Directed by Paul Weiland, and written by Richard Curtis, Bernard And The Genie never attempts to be anything other than what it is, an amusing little British TV movie to help fill the schedules during the Christmas season. Despite being a 1991 production, it's quaint and dated enough already to feel very much like something put out in the 1980s. In fact, I was surprised to see what Curtis had written before this, because his script here feels very much like the kind of juvenile and fantastical comedy you could make when reworking a classic tale for some school project (and as I once did this very thing with A Christmas Carol, I am speaking from experience).

The wishes are all easily realised with some editing and a variety of props (or cameo stars, in the shape of UK celebs such as Melvyn Bragg, Bob Geldof, and Gary Lineker), and everything is quite predictable, but the fun here is just watching people work in something that is designed to serve as pure family entertainment. A world onscreen that we all know, with an added sprinkling of magic over it to sweeten some of the gloomier moments.

Henry is a lot of fun as the genie, as expected, and Cumming is enjoyably naive and optimistic in the role of Bernard, a man who seems destined to be kept down in life because of his good nature. And, here ye this well, Atkinson is a scene-stealer as the nasty boss, always using the word ye whenever possible, and being SO outrageously harsh to Bernard, in a way that borders on the absolutely deranged and obsessive, that it's both horrendous and hilarious at the same time. The other person worth mentioning is Angela Clarke (billed as Angie Clarke), portraying a young woman who is introduced to Bernard by Josephus, and who seems to not mind the oddness of the awkward pair.

With the quality, and quantity, of seasonal fare having increased dramatically over the past few years, there's no real reason to ever put this high on your list of prospective viewings. It's perfectly fine though, for what it is, and those who enjoyed it when they first saw it will probably always have a soft spot for it.

5/10

There doesn't seem to be any decent release of this out there, but it's easy enough to view


Thursday, 12 December 2019

Yule Love It: A Christmas Movie Christmas (2019)

I knew that I had to see A Christmas Movie Christmas as soon as I saw the trailer for it. The plot is simple, yet potentially wonderful. Two sisters wake up to find themselves IN a Christmas movie. That's it. And it means you can have all of your comforting tropes, yet also have some laughs at their expense. In theory.

There were warning signs, however. First up, this is a film directed by Brian Herzlinger. He has moved on to make a pretty decent career for himself, certainly in the TV movie world, but film fans, like myself, who had to put up with his relentless spamming and childish behaviour on IMDb back when he was trying to get people to see his first movie, My Date With Drew, will always react badly to seeing his name. If you want to know how to make friends and influence people then study the behaviour of Herzlinger back between the years of 2004-2005 and do the exact opposite.

The second warning sign was that this was written by Brant and Kimberly Daugherty, a newly-married (at this time) couple who also give themselves main roles in the movie. I expected the worse, considering how the two might be working while wearing the rose-tinted glasses of honeymooning lovers, but also figured that I already tolerate enough extra sweetness in my Christmas movies anyway so maybe it wouldn't be so bad.

You know what? It wasn't so bad. Although that doesn't mean the movie was really good.

Lana McKissack plays Eve, and Mrs Daugherty is her sister, Lacy. Eve LOVES Christmas movies. Lacy does not. Both must navigate their way around some very typical plotting when they find themselves in one, with no idea of how they got there or how they can get back to reality. Lacy starts to connect with a handsome man who is also a dab hand at baking cookies (Paul, played by her husband). Eve is drawn to a young man named Dustin (Ryan Merriman, best known to film fans for his role in Final Destination 3, although it's worth remembering that a decade has passed since then). But complications arise in the shape of Russell (Randy Wayne), a pop singer who looks exactly like Eve's real-world partner, Chad, and Noele (Addy Stafford), a woman who sweeps in under the pretence of saving the traditional Christmas festival, but who is mainly there to be an obstacle on the path of true love between Eve and Dustin.

Although there's nothing here that is painfully bad, there's nothing here that's as good as it should be either. This should have been a lot of fun, a way for everyone to have their Christmas pudding AND eat it, but very few scenes make the most of the premise. Most of the blame must lie with the script, with Mr & Mrs Daugherty often casting aside the meta potential, and comedic potential, in favour of Christmas movie moments you can get from at least a hundred other, often better, movies. A couple of details work well, and the whole premise is all part of the fun, which is worth bearing in mind, but this could have been a lot funnier, without having to lose any of the sweetness.

As disappointed as I was with the script, it turns out that I didn't really have much to fear from the Daughertys, who both do well enough onscreen. Perhaps they are given a bit more attention than necessary, and you get a few shots that linger just a tad too long on them, but they do fine. McKissack and Merriman are better, however, and deserving of the lead roles. The former has a sense of glee and enthusiasm throughout, at least until things start to look like they could fall apart, and the latter is a standard nice guy for this kind of plot. Wayne and Stafford both do well in their roles, although it's a shame neither was given a character who would provide more of a threat to the proceedings, and Brigid Duffy is a delight in her small role as Gram Gram.

As director, Herzlinger does the basics required of him. He may now have a film career spanning fifteen years, but he still seems to approach material in a way that feels like he wants to get everything done without any fuss. There's no attempt to add anything to make his films stand out from the pack, even though I realise that can be hard to do with the Christmas TV movie restrictions in place.

A Christmas Movie Christmas should have been good fun, especially for anyone who has seen as many of these movies as I have (and I know there are more of you out there). Sadly, it's just okay.

5/10

Buy The Muppet Christmas Carol instead.


Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Prime Time: Christmas Mingle AKA Christian Mingle (2014)

Although it may seem surprising to some of you who know me, I try not to actively dislike people, or things, just because they are based in any faith. I like the idea of personal faith, and I don't mind if some people read a book, take various lessons from it, and apply those lessons to their everyday life. I dislike the situation when it affects others, usually from people who decide things should be read literally on one page and just acknowledged on the next.

This is my way of saying that I know I was not the target audience member for Christmas Mingle AKA Christian Mingle (AKA Christian Mingle: The Movie). But I went into it with an open mind, an unwavering love for Lacey Chabert, and the knowledge that it would be another Christmas movie to mark off my list.

Written and directed by Corbin Bernsen, who also gives himself a cameo role for one scene, Christian Mingle is the story of Gwyneth Hayden (Chabert), a marketing executive who thinks she has everything she needs in life, except for a man. Her friends keep telling her that she will be the last to settle down, and they complain that they, and their husbands, are running out of men to put forward. After seeing the advert on TV, Gwyneth creates a profile on Christian Mingle. She ends up dating the lovely Paul Wood (Jonathan Patrick Moore). It all starts off as something she views as nice, if odd, but soon becomes something more. Which may lead to a problem when people realise that Gwyneth isn't actually an active Christian.

There's nothing REALLY that wrong with Christian Mingle, in terms of it being a TV movie that uses Christmas as a backdrop for a blossoming romance. I mean, despite my ignorance of most faiths, Christians tend to view Christmas as a time of year for more than just hoping some jolly fat guy doesn't forget to break into your home and leave some toys. The technical side of things is perfectly okay, and the cast also includes Stephen Tobolowsky, David Keith, and Morgan Fairchild. There's also a potentially fun sub-plot about Chabert trying to market a pill that the maker (John O'Hurley) claims can cure baldness. Saidah Arrika Ekulona also does a good job of being a Christian who doesn't interfere until she is asked for help.

There is, however, also something really wrong with Christian Mingle. A number of things, actually. The positive depiction of people living by their faith is not one of them. The fact that the film is one big advert for Christian Mingle, and for the way in which Christianity can fill any gap in your life, is. The makers of the movie are quite entitled to do that, which isn't the point I am making. It just sets the whole film up as something even blander and uninvolving than most of these kinds of movies, because you know that they're not going to make the characters suffer too much, and Chabert will find happiness in some form as long as she finds her faith. Another big problem with the movie is not unique, it's just overdone, and that is how desperate the film makes Chabert. She MUST find a man, her life cannot be complete without one, it's almost shameful as she discusses the situation with her friends at the start of the movie.

You'll be unsurprised to know that I didn't love this one, but you may be surprised to know that I didn't hate it. It gets some bonus points for allowing the character played by Moore to be self-aware in his approach to life, and his old-fashioned attitudes that come from a good place. And if I can let I, Robot off with the Converse product placement then I can't exactly criticise Christian Mingle too much for selling itself in the movie named for it.

Not one I'd recommend, but far from the worst I have seen. I almost docked an extra point for it not being Christmassy enough though, before remembering that the word Christmas literally starts with Christ.

4/10

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


Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Yule Love It: Last Christmas (2019)

It's an odd thing to make a movie out of, right? George Michael songs? And using a cheesy Wham hit to inspire the whole thing? It's weird. But we're kind of living in peak weird. Okay, that's not true, I don't want to tempt fate here, but we certainly seem to be living in a time that rewards strange films that seem ripe for dismissal, yet build up an appreciative and loyal fanbase. I'd point towards the likes of the Mamma Mia! movies, The Greatest Showman, and Bohemian Rhapsody as prime examples. Although not all musicals, the music used is a vital part of their appeal.

Emilia Clarke plays Kate, a young woman who seems to spend her time being selfish and making one bad decision after another. That's when she's not spending her time being elfish, due to working in a Christmas store, run by a woman who goes by the name of Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate wants to fulfil her dream of being a great singer, and she cares more about her auditions than anything else, including her concerned mother (Emma Thompson). But she also finds herself caring for a handsome, quirky, stranger named Tom (Henry Golding). Tom might just be the person to help her start living her life again without flying off the rails, and it could all work out well just in time for Christmas.

Directed by Paul Feig, the big draw here is the script, co-written by Emma Thompson and Byrony Kimmings (based on the story by Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise). I've enjoyed all of Feig's movies over the past decade, don't get me wrong, but I forgot that he was the director here until I saw his name in the opening credits. That's because, for me, I developed blinkers when I heard of Thompson's involvement, and just immediately figured this would be more interesting for her involvement. And it is.

It's also lifted by the involvement of the other three leads. I couldn't be happier to finally see a movie role for Emilia Clarke which finally lets her be as likeable as she so often is offscreen. I may have missed some others, considering I've only seen her sci-fi blockbusters (so that is on me), but I had a fear that Clarke would languish for a while after Game Of Thrones finished, before finally fading into obscurity. That looks less likely now, and rightly so. Clarke is able to keep you on her side even as she moves from one mistake/bad decision to the next, and the third act rewards viewers for sticking with her, of course. Yeoh and Golding will continue to win over fans who enjoyed their performances in Crazy Rich Asians. Yeoh is a lot of fun as the tough, but soft-centred, boss, and Golding will put every guy in the shade with his positive attitude and romantic gestures. He may have to play things a bit too quirky at times (I saw someone mention, rightly, that he's the male version of the "manic pixie girl" rom-com trope) but he's also able to take a breath and take a moment with Clarke whenever things need to settle into something a bit more serious. Thompson gives herself an accent (the family moved to the UK from the former Yugoslavia when Kate was young), and also gives herself a couple of the best lines, while Lydia Leonard does well with the hard role of the sister who is fed up with her sibling being able to get away with whatever she likes. Boris Isakovic does just as well, playing Kate's father, saying enough with what he doesn't add to conversations that have people reminding others of what he gave up to settle his family in the UK.

Feig directs capably enough, having shown with both this and A Simple Favour that he's moved away slightly from presenting every film as a box-ticking "Paul Feig film". And, despite his vocal critics, he often seems to know what will please audiences. He has faith (no pun intended) in the material, which pays off for anyone wanting to snuggle up and watch something fairly cosy and predictable.

What Last Christmas gets right is all of the stuff that some will hate. The Christmassy cheer, the cheesy love story, the collection of characters that feel like they're all waiting for their own spin-off sit-com, the mix of jokes ranging from sweet to just rude enough to prompt a guffaw from your eternally-well-manicured Aunt Helen. But it's not without some wrong choices, in my opinion. There's an indirect, and direct, positioning of the movie just around the time of the Brexit referendum. Part of me understands what it adds to the texture of the story, part of me thinks the film could have done without it (or could have done something with it without making it SO focused on the actual referendum result itself). The other wrong choice . . . well, it's the use of George Michael songs. Fans of the singer will be delighted, and I know that is part of the crossover appeal here, but the soundtrack felt like every song choice was shoehorned in there, just to ensure that fans heard his voice every five minutes. I love the way the titular song is used, I just didn't think the rest worked that well, with one notable exception that had me hiding my watery eyes.

Last Christmas is good. It's solid seasonal fare, and a delightful rom-com. But if they had set it in the late '80s or early '90s, had Kate trying to make something successful out of a pipe dream, and perhaps ended at some big concert event, it could have been a bit better. You could have still had the moments of xenophobia, you would have had more reason to use all of the featured songs, and the ending could be very similar. But that is why I write movie reviews and not movies.

7/10

You will be able to buy the movie here.


Monday, 9 December 2019

Mubi Monday: The Palm Beach Story (1942)

This classic screwball comedy from writer-director Preston Sturges starts with a wedding before going on to show that it's not always a "happily ever after" for some. Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea are the central couple, Gerry and Tom Jeffers, and times are hard. They're behind on the rent payments, Tom cannot sell his latest idea (an invention that essentially allows for a city centre airport), and it seems to have been a while since the two of them could just let their hair down and enjoy themselves. That changes, temporarily, when a series of events leads to Gerry being given a bundle of money by the generous, and very rich, Mr. McKeewie (Victor Potel). After one big night out, Gerry makes up her mind to divorce her husband and sacrifice their time together for a greater good, hoping to find him the money he needs to raise for his big idea. She meets the very rich J. D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), which could solve all of their problems, but Tom pursues her, unsurprisingly unhappy with her plan.

Perhaps Sturges wanted to give himself a bit of a break after delivering the wonderful Sullivan's Travels the previous year, or perhaps he just liked the plot he came up with this time around, but there's no denying that this is a light, almost carefree, picture. It's also a strange one, when compared to the aforementioned film, in that every big problem here is solved by someone coming along at the right time with a large pile of money at their disposal.

McCrea and Colbert are both good enough in the main roles, with Colbert especially fitting as the loving and well-intentioned woman who comes up with a quite bonkers plan that somehow starts to fall into place. Vallee is a lot of fun as the super-rich gentleman who becomes smitten with Colbert, and Mary Astor is a ball of energy and machine-gun line delivery in the role of The Princess Centimillia, the sister of Hackensacker III. Potel only has a couple of scenes, but is a lot of fun as the old man with hearing problems and a big streak of philanthropy running through his nature.

The script is generally well put together, the direction is solid, and the cast seem to be having fun, but it's impossible to hold this one in the same high regard as other screwball comedies from this era, mainly because of how it relies on the same plot contrivance again and again, the provision of lots of money. Look, screwball comedies almost always use one or contrivances to either set the plot in motion, keep it going, or place the characters where they are needed, so I know complaining about it seems like missing the point of these films, but this just feels a little too . . . lazy, compared to the better examples. It would be okay if it happened once, perhaps even twice, but three times is a step too far.

I'd still recommend this, especially to those who have enjoyed other Sturges movies. It may not be one of his very best, but it's still very good. And it still has some scenes that hold up as real treats (all of them involving Colbert, showing how gifted she is with comedy). Just don't have it too high up on your list of prioritised viewings.

7/10

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