Monday 31 December 2018

Yule Love It: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

I've said it before and I'll say it again, The Hudsucker Proxy is the best film that the Coen brothers have made. Yes. Re-read that sentence, accept that I am not going to change my mind, and let's now move on to the full review.

Hudsucker Industries is about to experience a turbulent time. The president (Charles Durning) has left the building via a very high window and it is only a month until the stocks are going to be made available to the company. So Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman) comes up with a plan. Put someone in place who will cause the value of the company to plummet, allowing the board to buy up the shares and then get things back on track, making lots and lots of money and ensuring they also keep control. This works out well for Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a wet-behind-the-ears young man who has landed a job in the mailroom, but he obviously doesn't realise that he is being used as a patsy. He has one big idea, and one potential ally (Jennifer Jason Leigh, portraying a Pulitzer-winning reporter named Amy Archer, getting her story by working undercover for Norville). Can he somehow survive his express trip to the top of the company food chain?

Written and directed by both Coen brothers (with Sam Raimi helping out in the script department), I really do view this as a perfect movie, and it's most certainly the best cinematic ode to the many films of Capra that we've had in modern cinema. The script alternates between biting and beautifully gentle, there are some standout set-pieces (the main one being a child finally seeing the potential of a lone hula hoop), and the cast are faultless throughout.

The first time I watched this movie I was irritated by Leigh, but when I revisited it I saw that she delivers a performance that rivals those she was tasked to emulate (Hepburn clearly being the main influence). Robbins, on the other hand, gets to play his everyman in a broad, wide-eyed, way, allowing him to draw more comedy out of the material. Newman has a blast, a big grin one minute and a menacing glare the next, and there are equally wonderful turns from John Mahoney, Bruce Campbell, Bill Cobbs, Jim True, and the ill-fated Durning.

And all of those pitch-perfect performances are delivered in the midst of a film that feels like it could have been made in the 1950s and colorised for modern audiences. Every detail, from the layout of the Hudsucker building to the music (a fitting accompaniment to the visual style from Carter Burwell), to the main idea that the whole plot revolves around, no pun intended. Clean, crisp, yet warm, cinematography from Roger Deakins, a master of the craft, editing that veers between sedate and snappy, as required, and even the selection of well-utilised special effects are beyond reproach, in my eyes.

I may have misspoke when I said that this was the best film that the Coen brothers ever made. The more I think about it, the more I think I should just call it what it is; a modern masterpiece. Yes. And you're still not going to change my mind. Well, not until I have a long-overdue rewatch of Miller's Crossing anyway.


This says that it is UK compatible.
Americans can buy it here.

Mubi Monday: The Family (2013)

A fairly low-key film from writer-director Luc Besson (who worked on the script with Michael Caleo, adapting the source material by Tonino Benacquista), The Family works surprisingly well, especially when you think of some of the other choices Robert De Niro has made in the field of comedy, and even more so when you think of those roles he has taken that spoof his own image. The bonus here is that things aren't played for laughs, it's just funny to see these people so quickly resort to the only way they know how to deal with things, despite having to lay low and not bring any attention to themselves.

De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer are the parents, and Dianna Agron and John D'Leo are their teenage children. They've just moved into a new home in France, a move that we find out is yet another in a long succession of attempts to successfully relocate them. The man overseeing their new life is Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), exasperated by the fact that these people can't seem to appreciate what has been done for them in ongoing attempts to stop them from being killed. After an initial day of getting used to things, everyone soon starts to make the new situation work to their benefit, which isn't necessarily the best way to blend in and keep a low profile.

What The Family does so well is to take a little bit of time to see the main characters start to put their plans in place. There's always the threat of anger and violence, from the very beginning, but the comedy comes from seeing these people forced into biding their time, until they know they have all of the pieces in place to make whatever move they have had in mind since the start. There's also a plot strand about certain dangerous types finding out where their enemies are now living, of course, and things lead to a predictable finale, but the fun here is in the journey.

Besson and Caleo have put together a decent script, taking the time to show the main strength and weakness of each member of the family, which helps the pacing and really draws you in as it all heads towards a perilous third act. There are also plenty of nods, with Pfeiffer and De Niro respectfully drawing on some of their most famous roles, and one sequence concerning a local film screening is a brilliant meta highlight.

The cast are fantastic, across the board. Because nobody plays it for laughs, the material plays to their strengths. As well as the big names in the lead roles, who don't just give great performances but also work brilliantly alongside one another, both Agron and D'Leo are superb and believable as the teens who have their own ways of dealing with the standard pitfalls of high school life. Jones may only be in a handful of scenes, but he's as good as ever in a role that suits that air of blatant exasperation he can do better than so many others.

Okay, there's no film made on this subject yet that has topped My Blue Heaven (yeah, don't believe me, just go and rewatch it), but this is a pleasant surprise that I haven't heard too many other people recommend over the past few years. So I am recommending it now.


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

Sunday 30 December 2018

Yule Love It: The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Based on a tale by Lee Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas shows us how Charles Dickens reinvigorated both the holiday season and his own reputation when he wrote and published A Christmas Carol.

Dan Stevens plays Dickens, who we first meet during a bit of a lean spell. He still has a good name, and fans, but he has not had a hit in some time, meaning that money is a bit tight in the Dickens household. Not that you would know that, as it continues to be spent on things that show the Dickens family to be better off than they actually are. Desperate for an injection of finances, and inspired by the influences of one or two characters around him, Dickens comes up with the idea of a Christmas tale that will save him from bankruptcy, if he gets it published in time.

Written by Susan Coyne and directed by Bharat Nalluri, this is a film that works beautifully from start to finish. The more I think about it, the more enjoyable I realise it was. It manages to paint a broad, and maybe not entirely accurate, picture of a certain time in the life of the celebrated author, yet it also manages to present the main events of A Christmas Carol in a way that is both familiar and a bit different from previous interpretations. Classic moments are presented, but they're either in the context of being imagined by Dickens as he crafts the tale, being intertwined with his own memories, or simply taking place around him, ready for his writer's mind to store them for later use. It's a great approach to the material, with the script full of many fun references and gags, and Nalluri ensuring that every scene is handsomely-mounted and up to the standards of any decent telling of the central tale.

Stevens is superb in the main role, as desperate to find the thread of his latest story as he is for an upturn in his finances, and he's surrounded by a wonderful assortment of players. Small roles for the likes of Miles Jupp (playing William Thackeray) and Bill Forsythe (a man who provides a couple of famous lines usually uttered by Scrooge) complement strong turns from Justin Edwards (as John Forster, close friend to Dickens), Jonathan Pryce (father to the author, and a man who seems incapable of managing his own finances, having previously erred so badly that it gave his son a lifetime of insecurity and fear), and Anna Murphy (Tara, a maid who provides the inspiration for the new work being a Christmas tale). Morfydd Clark (Kate Dickens), Miriam Margolyes (head housekeeper, Mrs. Fisk), and Simon Callow (as an illustrator) are also worth mentioning, as is Christopher Plummer, who lands himself the prize role of Ebenezer Scrooge, an imaginary creation who comes to life and is honed into the figure we all know during many conversations with his creator.

I wouldn't take anything here as a factual account of the life of Dickens but it provides a nice overview of the man, reinforces the impact that his classic tale had, and also proves interesting enough that those wanting to know more about Dickens will, hopefully, seek out some more material that provides more facts than fiction. This is a delightful story, pure and simple, that makes perfect use of a central figure known for giving us some delightful stories.


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

Saturday 29 December 2018

Yule Love It: Mrs. Claus (2018)

First of all, I really hope nobody picks this in the hope of seeing Angela Lansbury having fun in the role of the lesser-celebrated member of the Claus couple. That movie is Mrs. Santa Claus, a 1996 TV movie, and is very different from this (although ends up being equally "enjoyable"). Okay, maybe part of me hopes that people DO make that mistake. But here's a review anyway, for people who somehow choose to pick this while knowing what kind of slasher fare they're about to get.

Things start with a sorority house initiation ceremony that is as unpleasant and mean-spirited as those things usually are. The nastiness continues, leading to the new pledge murdering the meanest of the mean girls. Ten years later, the sister of the murder victim is in that very sorority. She is due to have some party time with friends, ignorant of the fact that someone in a bad mask is due to spoil that party with a bit of hack 'n' slash shenanigans.

Written and directed by Troy Escamilla, who previously worked with a few of the same cast members in his debut feature, which seems to have been a standard slasher movie, Mrs. Claus is, well, a standard slasher movie, although it is one that lacks any real creativity or wit, instead relying on the pacing of low-lit deaths and horrible conversations that someone must have thought were amusing and worthy of handing over to actors (a few Christmas classics are namedropped, for example, and there's an excruciating exchange about Santa possibly being high to get through his workload).

A lot of the cast members blur into one another, although some stand out (not always for the right reasons), but the two main female lead characters are played by Hailey Strader and Jantel Hope (billed as Jantel Fontenot). Hope is almost good, despite being stuck with some awful scripted moments, but Strader isn't. That keeps her more in line with Ryan Poole, Billy Brannigan, Heather Bounds, Daiane Azura, Ronni Lea, and Jace Greenwood (who is given a couple of potentially decent moments to be memorable that he does absolutely nothing with).

Fortunately, Helene Udy and Brinke Stevens are the experienced actors involved in the proceedings. Unfortunately, the lovely Ms Stevens is kind of sort of well y'know a bit not great at the actual acting lark. Don't get me wrong, I love her, as I love many of the scream queens who came to prominence in the 1980s. She just doesn't deliver anything to provide a respite from the relatively poor acting on display. Udy is a bit better, helped by the fact that she gets to have more fun with her limited screen time.

Despite the many things working against it, Mrs. Claus gains points for three things. The pacing makes things bearable, it makes some use of the trappings of the season (not as much as it could, but some is better than none), and I quite like Daiane Azura. Back off, I don't tell YOU what criteria to use when you're rating movies. It's my life.


Americans can treat themselves here.

Shudder Saturday: Blue Sunshine (1977)

Jeff Lieberman doesn't have the most extensive filmography you may have checked out but he's delivered a fine selection of memorable moments (arguably none more memorable than that scene with the worms coming through the shower head in the worm-centric horror movie, Squirm). Blue Sunshine is yet another film that had been on my radar for many years, due to the fact that I had seen clips of people losing their hair and turning into maniac killers.

The plot is, well, that's basically it. A number of people start to lose their hair and then, at a certain point, they are driven into a mad rage and start to kill people. Jerry Zipkin (played by Zalman King) is a man who managed to fend off one of the killers, but his story seems so unbelievable that he ends up a wanted man. He starts investigating a number of murders that he sees are connected, eventually racing against the clock in order to stop more deaths.

A horror movie that really sums up the pessimism and downslide of the '70s, after the shiny and hazy days of the '60s had long faded away, Blue Sunshine is a simple and brilliant idea that is then spun out expertly by Lieberman. He chooses to show the events unfolding as a detective story, with the wrongfully accused man at the centre of events piecing things together a step ahead of the police, and holds back from what must have been an obvious temptation to have one bloody set-piece after another. Some may watch the movie and wish that there was more of the red stuff thrown about onscreen. Personally, I enjoyed the way things built from a sense of unease into moments of outright madness.

King may not be the most charismatic lead (and would find much more success as a producer of erotic movies and TV throughout the 1990s) but he does fine in his role, thanks in no small part to the script putting viewers one step ahead of him as he digs around while we see people building towards outbursts of murderous rage. Deborah Winters and Ann Cooper do well in supporting roles, with the latter getting a very memorable scene that she does well to avoid turning into something laughable, and Mark Goddard, Robert Walden, and Ray Young are all very good as the men potentially caught up in the danger. Charles Siebert is a detective following up on leads, and there's a small, but impressive, moment of scene-stealing by the always watchable Brion James.

I had my fingers crossed when I started this one, unsure of it being unable to live up to those snippets in the trailer I had often seen in the VHS days, but I was also prepared for disappointment. That wasn't necessary. Blue Sunshine holds up as a damn fine film, and it's one that I hope never disappears into obscurity (although it already seems to be quite a lesser-seen and lesser-known genre flick). If anyone wants to give it a decent disc release here in the UK . . . you'll get my money for it.


There's a special edition DVD here.
Americans can get this lovely Blu here.

Friday 28 December 2018

Yule Love It: 36.15 Code Pere Noel (1989)

There's a small child in peril at Christmas. He has to defend his home from an invader, and has an assortment of toys and gadgetry with which to do so. Sound familiar? Yes, 36.15 Code Père Noël feels very much like a dry run for Home Alone. So much so that writer-director René Manzor tried to sue the makers of that film for plagiarism (although I don't think he moved forward successfully with his claim).

Alain Lalanne is Thomas, the young lad who ends up in his rather sprawling home with his grandfather (Louis Ducreux) and the invader, a maniac dressed up as Santa Claus (Patrick Floersheim). Fortunately, Thomas has spent a lot of time emulating heroes from his favourite action movies so he's pretty unfazed when he realises the full situation.

36.15 Code Père Noël is a very, VERY odd film, and I don't mean that as a major criticism. Manzor has crafted a strange fairytale that calls back to the grim classics (no pun intended) with children being directly threatened by the likes of murderous witches and hungry wolves, but has instead placed Santa Claus right in the middle of the proceedings. Otherwise, all of the elements are present and correct. A child living an obliviously happy life until it is rudely interrupted, an elderly loved one (the practically blind grandfather), a grand expanse of wilderness to wander around in (even if that grand expanse is all within one massive home), a morality lesson, albeit an incorrect one, and a mix of sweetness and savagery.

The clumsy nature of the script and direction actually help to create and maintain that fairytale atmosphere. Viewers aren't given any background on the characters, not really, and the editing and pacing feels very random, and sometimes almost incoherent. The script is sparse once things get moving along after the opening act, and some of the lines of dialogue uttered are enjoyably strange, but none of it matters. Even as you wonder just how much space is hidden away in the main location, as the lead child actor wanders through what appears to be a junk-strewn batcave, it doesn't matter. It all comes together to make something surreal and mildly nightmarish.

Lalanne does well in the lead role, well enough anyway, and Floersheim is a lot of fun as the dangerous Santa out to get him. Ducreux always looks suitably vulnerable, while Brigitte Fossey is the working mother who becomes increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of her son.

Frustratingly difficult to find nowadays (I was gifted a copy by someone for Christmas), this is well worth trying to hunt down, and I can only hope that it gets a decent release here in the UK one day. After hearing about it for many years, it did not disappoint, and I am sure that many other film fans would be equally impressed by it.


This looks to be a decent disc.

Thursday 27 December 2018

Yule Love It: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

Fozzie Bear's mother, Emily, is getting ready to head off on a holiday when her plans are changed by the arrival of the whole muppet gang. Well, almost the whole gang. Ralph is lagging behind, somewhere, and Miss Piggy still has some way to go. This also upsets the plans for Doc (Gerry Parkes) and his dog, Sprocket, as they were going to be staying in the house on their own while Emily went off on her holiday.

Although not anywhere near as good as The Muppet Christmas Carol, or some of the other Muppet movies, this Christmassy TV special is fun throughout, full of the expected mixture of gags and songs. There's not much to it, and it's as forgettable as it is enjoyable, but fans of the fabric creations will find plenty to enjoy.

Directed by Peter Harris and written by Jerry Juhl, the simple plot not only brings together the usual gang but also allows screen time for residents of Sesame Street, some muppet babies, and even The Fraggles. The usual easy lessons are woven throughout the narrative, with one of the loveliest involving a scene between Swedish Chef and Big Bird, and nobody is wrapped to any degree, just to get them to fit into the seasonal storyline.

Apparently this first aired on my birthday in 1987, which makes it all the more depressing that I only got to it now, over thirty years later. It's easy enough to track down online, but difficult to find in a complete version, due to various rights issues leading to certain sections cut from most VHS and DVD releases (certainly in North America). Still, whatever version you end up seeing, this is a delight. There's a snowman that pairs up with Fozzie Bear for some comedy schtick, a running gag about a patch of ice at the doorstep, standard grumbles from Statler and Waldorf, and the sheer pleasure of seeing so many of these characters interacting with one another despite usually being kept to their separate shows (I can't tell you how stupidly happy I was to see Kermit and Robin meeting a bunch of The Fraggles).

There's also a sweet cameo from Jim Henson at the very end of the show, pairing him up with Sprocket for just a moment.

There's nothing more I can say about this. It runs for just over 50 minutes, it's never dull, and you'll already know if you want to watch, or rewatch, it. Fans of The Muppets will love it. Everyone else, well, they just need to find themselves a soul.


Here's a ridiculously overpriced disc, click on the link and buy something else.
This is the same, but for American folks.

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Yule Love It: Good Tidings (2016)

AKA Blood Tidings.

NOTE - I started to watch this on Amazon Prime, as every Wednesday is a Prime Time choice, but the audio mix was off. You could hear none of the dialogue. Worried that this was a symptom of a film made for pennies, I decided to search elsewhere for a copy of the film. I found it elsewhere online, and the audio was fine. So please be aware that the version on Amazon Prime is faulty.

Most of the time I try to watch movies without taking too much notice of the opinions of others. That way can help avoid the hyperbole, and helps to keep expectations fairly neutral. Of course, that's harder with many of the bigger cinema releases, but it's usually easier with the titles I decide to check out on Amazon Prime. Having said that, I did read a few reviews here, mainly to ensure that my next choice for a Christmas viewing would be eligible for inclusion in my yuletide schedule. The reviews weren't good. In fact, they were almost all terrible. The film was, apparently, a poorly shot bit of nastiness, without a decent script, and even lacking in any decent bloodshed. I was not about to enjoy myself, according to the advice of everyone else.

The plot is simple. Three maniacs dress up in Santa suits while on a killing spree. They target a building that has been taken over by a number of homeless people. One of those homeless people is Sam Baker (Alan Mulhall), an ex-military man who seems to be trying to redeem for something in his past, redemption that he strives for by helping a young woman named Roxy Muller (Claire Crossland). Once the sadistic Santas break into the building, they lock everyone inside and start toying with their prey.

Okay, Good Tidings has some problems. The script is the main one. Co-written by director Stuart W. Bedford, Giovanni Gentile, and Stu Jopia, it's a real mess of flat dialogue and cliches. None of the characters are sketched out well enough to have you really rooting for them, not even Sam and Roxy, and the best thing it does is opt not to give any time over to the background of the killers.

It's also a shame that a lot of the violence and death here happens offscreen. Considering that is the main strength of the film, there's nothing more to it beyond the killer Santas getting inside and terrorising and killing people, it would have been nice to see some more effective gore gags and brutality. The film makes up for that, at times, with moments showing the Santas gleefully playing games with their victims, but the general lack of tension means that fans will be waiting for one or two impressive deaths that never appear.

Having stated those criticisms, and while Good Tidings also doesn't do enough to distract viewers from the fact that it was obviously based around the opportunity to film everything in one available building, this wasn't actually that bad. I'm not going to pick apart the acting, which was often a bit wobbly but far from the worst I have seen (as well as Mulhall and Crossland, Jonny Hirst plays another main character, and he's probably the best actor onscreen), and Bedford at least tries something a bit different with his feature debut, after helming a number of shorts, to show that he might be capable of something much better, if he works with some better scripts and takes more time to consider shot choices and editing.

There are times when this feels like a stretched-out segment from an EC-comic-inspired horror anthology, especially with the accompanying soundtrack choices and the sheer glee of the killers, and that's no bad thing. It's just a shame that the film doesn't maintain that tone throughout. Still, it's one way to take a break from the usual avalanche of Hallmark holiday flicks.


It's here if you want it.
Americans can get the same disc here.

Tuesday 25 December 2018

Yule Love It: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)

A twist on the classic Dickensian tale that features a fine British comedy creation, Blackadder's Christmas Carol is a wonderful standalone tale that features plenty of seasonal trimmings alongside the expected insults and wordplay.

I would say that even those new to the character could easily watch this and enjoy it, but it's more accurate to say that you should go into this at least knowing that Blackadder is a sneaky, self-centred, manipulator who often finds his plans undone by either his gormless assistant, Baldrick, or the actions of others around him who somehow always manage to get the upper hand. Once you know that much then you're all set.

Contrary to every other portrayal of the character, and why it is so important to know him before watching this special, things start with us being introduced to an uncharacteristically kind and pleasant Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson in what is, in my view anyway, his finest role). He intends to spend Christmas with his assistant (yes, Baldrick is still as dim-witted as ever, and played by Tony Robinson, as ever). When a spirit (Robbie Coltrane) accidentally enters his home, Blackadder asks to see visions of his past and future, leading to a revelation that turns the classic morality of the tale on its head.

Director Richard Boden had some experience of directing TV shows before this, and would go on to direct Blackadder Goes Forth, as well as many other shows afterward. He does fine here, although this is a fairly thankless task when the focus is always on the script and performances, and obviously proved himself good enough to oversee what would be the final season.

Written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, Blackadder easily sits higher up in the echelons of British comedy. Many people point to the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth as one of the greatest moments in any sitcom, and rightly so, as it moved from the comedy to a poignant statement on the horror of war, and every season had many highlights (even the first season that had the main character not yet turned into the wonderful monstrosity he would become). This special episode was aired in between the third and the fourth season, which means it could easily have been a filler without as much care being given to it. Instead, Curtis and Elton clearly revel in the opportunity to rework the beloved Christmas classic, finding their way into the narrative by twisting everything to great comedic effect and then lacing each scene with the usual selection of hilarious dialogue.

Atkinson has never been better than when acting in this role (and, yes, I know that's saying something  when you think of his brilliant comedic turns), Robinson is a perfect foil to him, and the supporting cast, from Coltrane to Hugh Laurie, Vanessa Richardson to Stephen Fry, and Jim Broadbent and Miriam Margolyes, are all perfect. Many of them are reprising roles they played over the previous seasons of the show, relaxing back into them like a comfortable piece of favourite clothing.

If you have time during the holiday season, please do watch every episode ever of Blackadder. But if you can only watch one then give this a watch. It's a classic. Well, it's at least some kind of classic.


You can buy the tale here.
Americans can get the same disc here.

Monday 24 December 2018

Yule Love It: Pete's Christmas (2013)

Zachary Gordon is Pete, a teenager who wakes up on what will end up being the worst Christmas of his life. He's had to share a bed with his younger brother (Jake, played by Peter DaCunha) because of a visit from his grandpa (Bruce Dern). His parents (Molly Parker and Rick Roberts) have forgotten to get his present. He's ambushed by local bullies with snowballs, he also has to take part in an annual football game that he hates, and the dinner ends up not being cooked after a power failure. And, worst of all, Pete wakes up the next day to find that he's going to go through it all again. And again. And again.

Yes, it's another Christmassy riff on Groundhog Day (only this one isn't quite as enjoyable as the fun Christmas Do-Over), and there's a time loop that cannot be stopped until just the right lesson is learned, of course, which usually revolves around, well, I am sure you can guess.

Director Nisha Ganatra may not have stayed in this particular field, I think this is her only Christmas TV movie (to date), but writers Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer certainly settled into their groove nicely enough (Peter McKay also helped write this, but didn't follow them on their career path). This covers all of the bases well, and does a decent job of mixing the festivities with the timeloop fun. The main problem comes with some of the editing in the last third of the film, sometimes not making it clear enough how much time has passed, roughly, as we watch Pete try to perfect his day with varying degrees of success.

Gordon is decent in the lead role, and he will be a familiar face to many who have seen some of his extensive filmography (by the look of his credits, he has been acting since he was a very young lad), while Bruce Dern lifts the whole film up with his wonderful performance as the grandfather. The other cast members do fine, but the only one I took extra notice of was Bailee Madison, who possibly started acting at an even younger age than Gordon (most notably in Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark and Just Go With It) and did a few other Christmas movies at about this time, before moving on to a number of other projects.

Although it never really fulfils its full potential, Pete's Christmas is a fun, teen-friendly, holiday film that just about offsets the sugary schmaltz with enough moments that are genuinely amusing. I mean, I recommend dozens of films ahead of this one, including the time loop movies mentioned in the second paragraph, but if you're stuck with only the main TV channels and this comes on . . . you could do a lot worse.


There's a ridiculously pricey dvd here. Please click on the link and buy something else instead.
Or everyone could buy this cheaper disc from America.

Mubi Monday: A Star Is Born (1937)

It's a simple tale, and an effective one, so effective that it's been directly remade on a number of occasions (most recently in the hit starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga). A young woman has dreams of stardom. She sets out to make those dreams a reality and, in doing so, becomes involved with a star who is on the wane. As she ascends, he starts to sink lower.

The young woman here is an aspiring actress played by Janet Gaynor, the fading star an actor played by Fredric March, and both do a fantastic job in the lead roles, with the former managing to retain an air of innocence and optimism as she becomes famous while the latter struggles in his battle with the bottle. Other enjoyable turns come from Adolphe Menjou and Andy Devine, as a producer and assistant director, respectively, May Robson as an encouraging grandparent, and Lionel Standard enjoyably loathsome as a ruthless and effective PR worker.

It's no surprise that A Star Is Born has been remade every couple of decades, with the biggest gap being in between the 1976 version and the 2013 Indian movie, Aashiqui 2, based on the tale. The story is a wonderful archetype, and the template allows for artists to use it as a look at the fickle nature of fame, a fleeting joy that can occur in any field of the arts.

This original version, directed by William A. Wellman, and written by a team that included Alan Campbell, Robert Carson, and Dorothy Parker among the main writers, gets everything just right from the very beginning. The tone is balanced nicely between the successes and failures of the two main characters, the supporting characters are well used throughout, and there are a number of enjoyable in-jokes scattered throughout. Considering this was released in 1937, it still feels astonishingly fresh and relevant (making those remakes even less surprising), and this is an old-fashioned production that I am sure will still find favour with modern viewers.

It's amazing to finally see this tale (I have, until now, sadly never watched any version of the story) and be pleasantly surprised by how well it is all put together. I'm not just on about the acting, direction, music, etc, although those things are all great. This is something that could easily be a sour experience for viewers. It is, essentially, a tale of people who get everything they want, yet can't be truly happy once they get it. The fact that this film works so well, and that every subsequent interpretation is allegedly as good, or almost as good, is almost as much of a fairytale as the journey of Gaynor's character.


There's a decent disc available here.
Americans can buy a disc here.

Sunday 23 December 2018

Yule Love It: A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding (2018)

Rose McIver returns to play Amber in this Christmassy sequel to the Christmassy Netflix film from last year, and you probably won't be surprised to find that it is just as comfortable and enjoyable as the first film. One of the co-writers (Nathan Atkins) returns, and the new director (John Schultz) at the helm obviously knows what is wanted from him.

It's a year on from the events in the first film, funnily enough, and Amber is travelling back to the land of Madeupcountrydonia to marry Prince Richard (Ben Lamb). She takes her father  (John Guerrasio) along with her, and immediately starts to butt heads with the traditional Mrs Averill (Sarah Douglas), who believes that Amber shouldn't be able to do anything that is different from what has been done for hundreds of years before her arrival. On top of that, Amber feels her own wedding getting out of her control, as she tries not to upset the royal family while resenting being pushed around and controlled by an impatient wedding planner (played by Raj Bajaj). Oh, there's also the fact that the national economy seems to be tanking for some reason, putting even more stress on Prince Richard while Amber grows frustrated by her exclusion in a matter she feels she may be able to help with.

As well as those already mentioned, you also get the return of Alice Krige (Queen Helena), Honor Kneafsey (Princess Emily), Theo Devaney (Simon, who may wish to atone for his previous transgressions or may be scheming once again), and more. The band is back together, as it were, and they're happy to play the favourite tunes that the crowd came to hear. McIver helps immensely once again, being a very likeable lead. As much as I enjoy seeing her in anything, including these movies, I'd love to see her in a big theatrical release some time in the near future (hell, if Veronica Mars can get a movie then why not iZombie?).

Schultz does just fine, joining the ranks of the many people who direct these films without putting any fuss or variation from the accepted standards. Atkins stays true to the main characters with his script, thankfully, and throws in the required obstacles to everlasting happiness without making anything too complicated. He doesn't do as well with the comedic elements, mainly involving Guerrasio and/or Bajaj, but everything moves along pleasantly enough.

Of course it's something that many will sneer at, just as so many people sneered at the first film, but if you enjoyed that one then you're going to enjoy this. It tells a new story while sticking closely to the feeling and tone of the first film, because everyone likes what they're familiar with (despite the protests of some).


Here's a different royal-themed Christmas movie.
And here are those animated classics again.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Yule Love It: All The Creatures Were Stirring (2018)

Maybe I was a bit harsh on A Christmas Horror Story. That was my first thought after the end credits rolled on All The Creatures Were Stirring. As I put my thoughts, and rating, in order, I started to think it more and more. In fact, I'll need to revisit that film one day, considering I rated it only slightly higher than this one and now think back on it with a vague memory of constant Christmassy-infused horror fun.

I won't find myself thinking back on this film with such hazy fondness. Co-written and co-directed by David Ian McKendry and Rebekah McKendry, All The Creatures Were Stirring is a Christmas-themed anthology horror movie, hence my mind heading to A Christmas Horror Story, that proves to be almost consistently disappointing. It has a great framing device, the strongest part of the whole film, but nothing much works when it comes to the short tales.

Graham Skipper and Ashley Clements play Max and Jenna, two friends who meet up for a sorta-date during the holiday scene. They buy tickets and go in to see a piece of theatre, entitled "All The Creatures Were Stirring", and that's when things start to get odd. The performances, shown at the beginning and end of each tale before a transition to standard movie presentation, are odd enough, but the whole atmosphere is a bit off. The first tale is a Secret Santa scenario in an office space, but someone has tampered with the gifts. The second tale shows a man who ends up locked out of his car when he just wants to get home for dinner. The third is a modern riff on A Christmas Carol. The fourth shows the consequences of a seasonal hit and run. Last, we get the odd tale of a Christmas dinner with a major difference. Meanwhile, the wraparound material gets weirder and weirder.

It's hard to pin down exactly what has gone wrong with All The Creatures Were Stirring but I'll try to rattle off a list of contributing factors. Bear in mind, however, that this is decent stuff, from a technical standpoint. Although the script isn't anywhere near as good as it could be, the McKendrys can at least be applauded for trying to make everything look and sound as good as the budget allows, and they're helped by a pretty solid selection of main cast members (Jonathan Kite is the main reason I got through the third tale).

Okay, where to begin, where to begin? I've already mentioned my enjoyment of the framing device. No complaints there. And I really enjoy the first tale. It still has flaws but it's a fun start to the proceedings. Things start to sour when you realise that a) none of the stories have a resolution either satisfying or amusing enough, and b) most of the stories don't actually make the best use of the trappings of the season. That may sound silly of me to say, especially when one tale is literally just a truncated and updated version of the famous Charles Dickens Christmas classic, but it's true. Most of the tales feel as if someone remembered at the last minute that they were set at Christmas and then threw some tinsel around. They also feel very disconnected from one another. I don't need all modern anthology films to have criss-crossing narratives and connective tissue but I do think some more hints at a cohesive mythos would have helped these stories to feel more satisfying, even without any proper resolution.

It's obvious why the McKendrys decided to take this route, having already made a number of short films on the way to this feature debut. They must have thought that an anthology horror would allow them to basically piece together a few shorts and stay within their comfort zone. The final product reminds us, and perhaps them, that there's a bit more to it than that. I'll be interested to see what they do next though, especially if they move towards filling a standard runtime with just the one story to tell.


If you're a multi region kinda person then you can pick this up here.
Americanos can pick it up here.

Shudder Saturday: 5ive Girls (2006)

If you think I had high hopes as I started watching 5ive Girls then you think I am even dumber than my writing makes me appear to be. The only name I recognised in the cast was Ron Perlman, and I suspected that he wouldn't be the one getting the most screen time. The poster was about as generic as they come. The plot summary hadn't been great. And, last but by no means least, it is one of those films that uses a number in one of the letters spelling out that same number. This has been acceptable on a few occasions, but is more often than not a warning sign that someone thinks they have more great ideas and creativity than they actually do.

Things start off promisingly enough. A young woman (Elizabeth, played by Krysta Carter) is attacked by evil forces at her school while a priest (Ron Perlman) finds that he is unable to help her. Fast forward to five years later and the school is reopened. The priest is still there, there's a headmistress (Amy LaLonde) who seems to be unnecessarily strict, and the number of pupils total five when Alex (Jennifer Miller) joins them. Alex is telekinetic, making things move around when she is angry or threatened, and she also has visions of Elizabeth. The other girls are Connie (Tasha May), a conduit, Leah (Barbara Mamabolo), who can pass through solid objects, Cecilia (Terra Vnesa), a blind psychic, and Mara (Jordan Madley), who can heal fresh wounds. It turns out that the headmistress has brought them together for a special purpose, believing she can still save Elizabeth.

Only the second feature directed by Warren P. Sonoda, who also wrote the script, this is a film that reeks of a sense that it was considered an easy option. Get some pretty actresses together, get one well-known actor, use some CGI whenever things are supposed to be scary, and keep it all very teen-friendly. Anyone can do it, right? Well, as so many others have managed to prove time and time again, no. Not that 5ive Girls is anywhere near as bad as some lazier and less competent films I have seen in the genre, but it doesn't ever rise above the just below average.

Sonoda directs better than he writes. The script is weak, especially when it comes to the actual plotting and the moments that serve as simply titillating diversions for teenage boys who end up watching this (you can't tell me there's any other real reason for the scene in which the headmistress spanks Alex with a ruler, I'm not buying it), but he doesn't do too bad when it comes to the moments that require the girls to actually fight against evil, often in the shape of another one of their number who has been taken over by the force.

The cast help, which isn't to say that they're the best. They're just okay, but that's a pleasant surprise when you consider the dialogue they have to utter at times. LaLonde gets a number of the worst moments, so it's fortunate that she's distractingly attractive enough to make up for it. Some of the main character make less of an impression, May and Mamabolo being the main two who are given less to do as the plot develops, and Perlman, as suspected, just isn't onscreen for long enough.

The central idea isn't too bad, as silly as it is. But it's hard to watch this without asking yourself a number of questions. What is the point of the plan? Why is it the telekinetic girl who starts having the visions first? And why is this school happy to reopen for a total of five pupils? (sorry . . . 5ive pupils)

You can waste 90 minutes with this one and not feel too pained but it's unlikely to be remembered a few weeks down the line, or one that you'll ever rush to rewatch. Decidedly disposable entertainment.


You can, if you wish, pick up the DVD here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Friday 21 December 2018

Yule Love It: Secret Santa (2018)

Everyone knows, despite what Christmas SHOULD be about, that the holiday season often ends up being one that is full of stress, obligations, and tensions that can rise to the surface and turn into arguments when everyone had had one or two drinks too many. Secret Santa takes that atmosphere, the family dinner with everyone ready to bring up long-held grievances as they do their annual duty, and ramps things up to an amusingly excessive level.

A Leslie Kies plays April, a young woman dreading the family get-together. She's taking her boyfriend (Michael Rady) along with her for moral support, but it's going to be a tough time for everyone. April has a mother (Debra Sullivan) who can barely create one sentence that doesn't contain at least a subtle dig, a sister (Ryan Leigh Seaton) who seems very jealous of her, a slightly withdrawn brother (Drew Lynch), and a stepbrother (Nathan Hendrick) who has brought along a girlfriend (Michelle Renee Allaire) he  has been dating since meeting in a strip club. There are a few other family members there, but that's the core group I'll namecheck in this review. As things start to turn more overtly nasty around the dinner table, with resentment and insults being passed around in all directions, violence soon erupts. And things just get worse and worse. It's almost as if something has happened to make everyone lose any sense of self-control at the worst possible time.

Written by director Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan (which may be why she managed to get so many great lines of dialogue, although many of the leads get some gems), Secret Santa is a horror comedy with the emphasis very much on the comedy. Those seeking actual scares or an abundance of gore will be disappointed, but it's still very much a horror film in terms of the violent eruptions and general bloodshed (and there are some amusingly abrupt and impressive kills). The pacing is perfect throughout, as is the mix of the comedy with whatever level of discomfort is being played out onscreen.

Direction from Marcus is also very good. The film doesn't look as if it has the biggest budget ever, unsurprisingly, but Marcus tries hard to distract you from that. Moving outside the house for a while stops it from feeling too restricted to that one location, the money has been used to ensure that the effects work is top notch, and the script does the rest of the work, carrying viewers smoothly and quickly through a Christmas time that starts off feeling like your normal stressful seasonal experience and ends in a much more extreme place.

Kies is a decent lead (although this is very much an ensemble piece), and I've already mentioned Sullivan getting to deliver some great lines, but it's impossible to nominate one of the cast members ahead of any of the others. Seaton is hilarious bitter throughout, Lynch (a familiar face to anyone who has seen clips of his comedy routines online or on TV) is sweet and funny, and Hendrick has an absolute blast playing his hyped up asshole character, who still somehow remains quite likeable and entertaining before everything goes south.

Secret Santa is a perfect antidote for those sick of the deluge of schmaltzy TV movies available at this time of year. It's not interested in being cheery, it's not wanting to teach you any morality lesson (well, beyond the obvious one of maybe not resenting your family members so much that you want to violently attack them), and it seems to wink at viewers and say "yes, this time of year can be as awful as it is wonderful, but grit your teeth and we'll get through to the end together." I had a blast with it.


You can pick up the DVD here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Yule Love It: Mercy Christmas (2017)

If you like to go into movies knowing as little as possible about them then do skip this review until you've seen Mercy Christmas. I always do my best to avoid spoilers but in summarising this film I'll probably be revealing one or two details that work better for people who don't know they're coming. That's how I viewed the film, not really knowing anything else about it beyond the title, and that's how I recommend experiencing it.

Steven Hubbell plays Michael Briskett, a bit of a doormat who ends up being handed an extra workload by his boss (Andy, played by Cole Gleason) when he just wants to get ready to enjoy the Christmas break. He even has a small party planned, although nobody turns up to it. Well, nobody turns up to it until Cindy (Casey O'Keefe) arrives. Cindy is the new assistant to Andy but, unlike the boss man, she seems very nice. Although she doesn't seem quite so nice when Michael wakes up in a basement beside other people who have been drugged and kidnapped. Christmas dinner is always a big deal, and Michael and the others trapped with him are being eyed up as very special ingredients.

The directorial feature debut of Ryan Nelson, who also co-wrote the script with Beth Levy Nelson (sorry, I couldn't find out if they were related or married or just carriers of the same surname), Mercy Christmas is a fine blend of the darkly comedic and the macabre. Considering how many of us overstuff ourselves during the festive period anyway, it doesn't take a huge leap to think of how things would go for a family of merciless cannibals. There isn't a massive amount of bloodshed, but there's enough to remind you that this has one foot in the horror genre, and Nelson wisely chooses to avoid dwelling too lasciviously over any of the more traumatic "ingredient prep".

The comedy comes from a few different angles. You have the standard office worker being taken for granted by his douchebag of a boss, you have the standard traditions of Christmas made strange and amusing with the cannibalistic appetites on display, and you also get some extra tension that often twists into comedy when one family member decides to introduce his loved one to the others.

Hubbell is decent in his role, he's likeable enough and you spend the movie hoping that he gets out of his predicament, and Whitney Nielsen and D. J. Hale also do well playing two of the other victims, but it's Gleason and O'Keefe, as well as David Rupprecht and Gwen Van Dam, who have the most fun, portraying four of the main sextet of meat-eaters.

It's rough around the edges, certainly, but everything hits a required basic standard when it comes to the technical aspects (although I'll be damned if I can remember one snippet of the soundtrack right now). If you can look past that lack of polish then you may find yourself consistently entertained, as long as you have a similar sense of humour to me and can laugh at arguments between cannibals over cooking times, someone being mildly electrocuted by Christmas lights, and the harmful power of someone who is very angry while holding an iron in their hand.


You can buy Mercy Christmas here.
Americans can get it on blu here.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Yule Love It: Santa & Me (2013)

AKA Monster & Me.

I knew I was in for no small amount of pain when Santa & Me started. It was, from the very first scenes, a cheap and childish effort. It's another one of those films that feels as if it was made to give everyone involved their one and only chance to be involved in the movie business. The fact that most of the people here have been involved in a number of other movies is a fact I find as worrying as I find unbelievable, and I'm not sure whether it makes me view this effort in a better or worse light.

Athena Baumeister plays a very spoiled young girl named Rubie. She's so horrible that Santa (in the form of Freddie De Grate) decides to curse her. She is made to look as horrible on the outside as she is on the inside (which means she wakes up with spots, based teeth, and a monobrow), a spell that can only be broken if she received a proper gift from a friend. And this is when Rubie starts to learn that she doesn't really have any proper friends, and maybe she has been too quick in her bullying and dismissal of young Olivia (Alyssa Kennedy).

Oh boy, where to begin here? The fact that this isn't the worst Christmas movie I have seen, and it's not even the worst I have seen THIS MONTH, says a lot more about the amount of Christmas movies I have watched than the quality of this film, which looks like someone was given a video camera and script written in crayon at the end of a dinner party. The adults would have had some wine, the kids would have been happy to stay up later, despite being quite tired, and it all seemed like a great idea at the time.

Baumeister isn't too bad in the lead role, although her characters is so annoying and horrible in the first part of the movie that it's hard to care for her when she is turned into a monster. Kennedy is also okay, I suppose, but it helps that she isn't the focus of too many scenes. Everyone else, however, is horrible. The parents (Christine Springett and David Neff), the little brother (Lucas Barker), and Santa (De Grate); most of them act as if they have just been rudely woken up in the middle of the night, had the concept of acting badly explained to them, and then been pushed in front of the camera after they've already spent a good 15 minutes or so protesting that they still don't know what they're supposed to do.

Koji Steven Sakai has crafted a poor script, but he gets a goodwill point for not padding things out with even more unnecessary moments. Don't get me wrong, you could argue that so many moments here ARE unnecessary but they usually tend to work in terms of highlighting the spoilt nature of Rubie's life (unlike, for instance, a 10-minute sequence showing people playing croquet - I'm looking at YOU, Santa's Summer House).

Director Jeff Solema can also get a goodwill point, mainly because he gives hope to everyone who has ever wanted to direct a movie. I'm not sure if anyone told him that directing a movie meant actually asking actors to act and trying to hide the fact that the whole thing is being filmed on a budget of $1000 but, if they did, he clearly didn't get the memo.

Maybe a goodwill point for each of those things is too much. They can have a half point each, making one whole point. But, amazingly enough, the film also gets a goodwill point for actually, well, not doing a terrible job at making its obvious point. Once it gets to the third act, despite remaining only barely competent (in terms of it actually looking and feeling like a proper film) and staying very much aimed at younger viewers who won't question the many flaws and nonsensical moments, it brings things to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

But most viewers won't see that. Most will have given up within the first 5-10 minutes, and I don't blame them. I really wanted to. Because this is not good. It just ended up not being quite as bad as I thought it was going to be.


If you can endure this movie then you can endure this triple-pack.
Here are some Disney movies for American readers.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Yule Love It: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

When it was released in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut was, for many people, hard to simply review as a movie. This was, after all, the final film from director Stanley Kubrick. He had died just days after handing over his final (?) cut to the studio, the shooting schedule had gone way over schedule (to the point that it’s still recognised as having the lengthiest ongoing shooting schedule ever), and it placed THE Hollywood power couple of the time – Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – in the centre of what seemed to be an erotic thriller.

In some ways, it’s still hard to simply review the movie. It still is the final film that Kubrick directed, it still has the legacy of that whirlwind of speculation and criticism that came about before anyone had seen the thing, and some said it contributed to the disintegration of the Cruise-Kidman marriage (they divorced in . . .  2001, which could be viewed as an amusing irony).

What's it all about though? Well, Cruise plays Dr. William Harford and Kidman plays his wife, Alice. They seem to be happy, successful people, yet Cruise is troubled when his wife confesses to him about a time when she was almost unfaithful. Having to head out to deal with a patient, still processing what he has been told, Harford finds himself drawn into a world of temptation, lust, and hedonism.

When it gets things right, Eyes Wide Shut is an interesting and frank look at how quickly adults can get themselves tied up in knots over sex, the chance to explore new sensations, and what can occur when wearing a cloak of anonymity compared to how we weigh things up when wearing our public persona. It shows how easily you can want to chase something, how a fire can start raging within from just one or two tiny sparks.

But when it gets things wrong, as it does here and there, it's a bit of a mess. The treatment of various female characters (mainly those played by Vinessa Shaw and Leelee Sobieski, but almost every female onscreen is dealt with in an unfairly harsh way while the men get off largely scot-free) is problematic, to say the least. Cruise and Kidman aren't doing their best work, although kudos to them for taking on these roles and placing themselves entirely in the hands of Kubrick. And then there's the music, which is so bad at times that it's hard to imagine Kubrick ever thought it good enough, especially when you consider his knack for picking the perfect audio choices to accompany his visuals over the years.

The lengthy runtime also doesn't help either, although there are very few scenes that I would want to see removed. Everything feeds into the main idea(s) being explored, even if a lot of it feels unnecessary. It's hard to keep track of the amount of time that's supposed to be passing onscreen, but I think that works well as a sign of the bewildered and overly-stimulated mindset of the main character.

This may not be the masterpiece that fans would have hoped would cap the end of a magnificent directorial career but it's another film aimed squarely at adults by a director who almost always picked his projects based on his own passion for the material. And it has a decent role for Sydney Pollack, a fever-dream atmosphere throughout, and ends a glorious career in cinema with the word "fuck".


Here's a great way to get most of Kubrick's movies in one set.
Americans may want to splash out on this option.

Monday 17 December 2018

Yule Love It: A Snow White Christmas (2018)

Here's a rare thing. It's a Christmas movie directed by someone helming their first feature, and written by someone who only has one other film to their credit (and THAT was directed by Brian Herzlinger, which means it will never be at the top of my prioritised viewing list . . . nobody who was there during those fun times will ever forget his constant spamming on IMDb for My Date With Drew *shudder*). And it's actually quite enjoyable.

Again, repeating the message for those who somehow miss it whenever I am discussing Christmas TV movies, being quite enjoyable in this field isn't the same as being quite enjoyable when compared to the vast selection of other movies out there. There are certain limitations that these kinds of films can never fully escape, usually in terms of budget and the list of seasonal tropes that should be checked off, but this one does a better job than most, possibly because writer Paula Rahn seems more interested in creating a spin on the classic Snow White tale than just making yet another holiday movie that joins with all of the others in some kind of cocoa-fuelled osmosis.

Michelle Randolph plays Blanca White, a young woman who is tricked by her evil stepmother (Carolyn Hennessy) and stepbrother (Rich Barnes). They somehow manage to wipe her memory and then have her dropped off at a motel, hoping that she stays there until everything is sorted with an inheritance that they don't want her to be a part of. The spell can only be broken by true love, of course (and that little clause is provided by a fun little scripted moment). But while Lucas Prince (Colt Prattes) tries to win her over, Blanca finds herself more connected to the handsome and lovely hunter (Liam McNeill). Oh, and there's a seven-piece band called the Holly Jollies, led by a man named Hap (Naheem Garcia).

Director Kristin Fairweather does what needs to be done here, but also seems to be having some fun. She's got a decent little script to work from, courtesy of Rahn, and a game cast who all pitch their performances at a suitable level. The whole thing is close to panto, which is not a problem considering the central story. And I must admit that as soon as I found out that someone was named Hap, I was waiting to see how the other characters would be represented in standard human form, as opposed to the more familiar dwarves that we've seen in many other versions of the tale. Spotting the classic elements being updated or twisted is all part of the fun, from the obvious (the character names, of course) to the less obvious (such as . . . hmmm, okay, most of them are obvious, but that makes them no less fun).

Randolph is perfect for the lead role, looking every inch the character as she has been so often depicted, and Hennessy and Barnes are a lot of fun. Prattes and McNeill may be a bit bland, which is so often the way with the potential romantic leads in this sort of fare, but they also do fine, and Prattes is given some amusing moments as he struggles to win White over in ways that she doesn't respond to.

As I end this review, let me be very clear. This was a bit cheap, a bit broad, and quite silly, yes. It was also enjoyable. I genuinely enjoyed it. I would watch it again. I recommend it to others. But only during the holiday season.


There's a different Snow White Christmas available here.
Americans can get the same disc here.

Mubi Monday: The House That Jack Built (2018)

Another movie from Lars von Trier, another expected cloud of controversy and divided opinions. My own relationship with the man has turned around completely from how it used to be. I loved both Dancer In The Dark and Dogville but have strongly disliked most of his output over the past decade. Yet, to his credit, I still end up keen to see what he will present to us next. And I still enjoy hearing about how his work tends to upset people.

The House That Jack Built stars Matt Dillon as Jack, a serial killer who is relating the story of his "highlights" to a figure named Verge AKA Virgil (Bruno Ganz). Jack is supposed to be smart enough to have been killing people for a number of years, despite being unable to behave normally in most situations that place him anywhere near other witnesses, but he also wants to be caught. It's just a matter of time, which may mean that Jack doesn't ever get to finish building a house he has attempted on a few different occasions.

The first thing that struck me about this movie, after all that I'd heard about it, is how funny it was. This is Von Trier having more fun than he's had in some time. Oh, he's always had dark humour running through his material but this brings it right to the surface and is all the better for it. If you're worried about this being a bleak serial killer movie then the opening scenes should allay those reservations (although there are moments of violence that are quite brutal).

The second thing that struck me was how unfortunately hampered Dillon was in the main role. I really like Dillon in most of the roles he has played throughout his career, and this could have been a stellar turn from him, but he's not that good here. It's not entirely his fault. Von Trier has written a script, working with Jenie Hallund once again, that crucially can't decide on how it wants to portray the central character. If he's precise and smart then that isn't evidenced by the scenes we are shown. If he's just an ordinary guy who has remarkable luck in his chosen way of life then let us see some more everyday moments. Putting Dillon in the lead role and then not allowing him to use his talents to portray someone who could possibly be a much more effective charmer and killer is a huge flaw.

A lot of the other aspects of the film work, although we have the usual excesses and moments of self-indulgence from a director now so far up his own backside that he's probably created a whole universe in there, complete with planets populated by people who worship him. The runtime is about 150 minutes, there are tableaux moments, and some more unnecessary slow motion that I, once again, have to cede looks great but would be ridiculed if this was a film from certain other directors who have been known to overuse that trick.

Although this is really all about Dillon's character, decent supporting turns come from Uma Thurman,  Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough. None of them are onscreen long enough, especially Hogan or Keough, but they all do well to make a lasting impression long after the film is finished,

If you want a gritty serial killer movie then you have to look elsewhere. You can also look elsewhere if you want some black comedy with your multiple murders. But this is the only place where you can find the two colliding with the artistic sensibilities of Mr Lars von Trier. That will be enough to ensure that some people never watch it. I'm actually pleased that I decided to give it a go.


You can buy Jack's house here.
Americans can rent it here.

Sunday 16 December 2018

Yule Love It: Christmas Wedding Planner (2017)

Christmas Wedding Planner, how do I get irritated by thee? Let me count the ways. I had heard that this was bad. My wife gleefully read out some reviews and told me that I should see if I could endure it. "Pah," I replied (in my own head), "I am a veteran of these movies. It shall pose no serious challenge to me." Only 30 seconds into the movie, I realised that this was going to be a chore.

What made me realise that this was going to be difficult to get through? Well, this movie starts off with the worst rendition of Jingle Bells I have ever heard in my life. Seriously, it's as if someone decided to sing it in the style of a teenage Taylor Swift (when she was still singing songs that were more country than pop) tribute act. That was the first warning sign.

Then I came to the horrifying realisation that it was directed by Justin G. Dyck. This is one of the people responsible for causing me some pain last year when I watched 48 Christmas Wishes, which at least had the excuse of being aimed solely at children. The fact that he's now two for two should ensure that I avoid his name on all other projects, but it won't. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, still shame on you. Fool me again and again and again, it doesn't matter when I refuse to feel shamed.

Let me get to the plot. Jocelyn Hudon plays a wedding planner named Kelsey, although she hasn't actually planned any weddings yet. This will be her first, the marriage of her cousin, Emily (Rebecca Dalton), to a good egg named Todd (Eric Hicks). But it could all be jeopardised by the interference of Emily's ex, Connor (Stephen Huszar), who is an investigator out to show that Todd isn't the goodie that everyone thinks he is. There's also an overly critical aunt (played by Kelly Rutherford), a jovial Joey Fatone kinda restauranteur (played by Joey Fatone), and three bridesmaids who are credited as, and I am not joking, Jealous Bridesmaid, Clumsy Bridesmaid, and Bitter Bridesmaid.

Is there anything here that works? Yes. Some may argue against my opinion here, but I don't think Hudon and Huszar are that bad as potential leads. Unfortunately, I have to refer to them as potential leads because both the director, Dyck, and writer, Keith Cooper, don't give them a chance. They're either being crowded out by less talented supporting players or left to try and make the most of horrible dialogue and horrible, HORRIBLE character development (I almost gave up when we got the reveal about the recipient of Kelsey's text messages). Rutherford and Fatone are also okay, although the former is made almost unbearable by the writing.

Is there anything else though? No. Everything else is either bad or laughably bad, from the music to the editing to the twists and turns of the plot. It would be barely acceptable as an episode of a bad children's TV drama, which it most closely resembles, but it's almost beyond belief that people worked on this every day and thought the final result would be an enjoyable feature film.

Tempted to watch it to see if it's really as bad as I, and many others, have said? Do so at your own risk. But don't come running to me if the end credits roll and you then run to the nearest pot of boiling mulled wine to throw over yourself in an attempt to boil away the memory of what you just endured.

2/10 (and anyone without my high tolerance for movie pain can easily half that score).

Treat yourself to this triple-pack instead.
Americans may want this pack.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Yule Love It: Christmas Presence AKA Why Hide? (2018)

A group of friends get together for Christmas, which leads to inevitable disagreements and tension, as well as moments of bonding and fun. The usual Christmas mix. That's the basic premise for this seasonal horror that uses the holiday as an excuse to isolate some adults in a house in the middle of nowhere, letting viewers spend some time with them before an evil presence decides to mess with their heads while trying to kill them off, one at a time.

Charlotte Atkinson is McKenzie, the main character being kept in good cheer by her visitors. It's her first Christmas since the passing of her parents, and her friends want to help take her mind off the loss. McKenzie also had a sister when she was a little girl, but her sister disappeared one day . . . somewhere in the area surrounding the house that everyone is due to stay in.

Directed by James Edward Cook, who also co-wrote the script with Karen Taylor, Why Hide? (which has also been retitled recently with the much better name of Christmas Presence) is a film that almost does enough wrong in the opening third act to make it unwatchable. I wouldn't be surprised if some people gave up at about the 30-minute mark, missing out on the better stuff still to come. And some of the better stuff is very good indeed, with individual moments and scares proving to be surprisingly effective. When an unseen, or smoke-formed, presence starts to terrify the characters, things quickly go from bad to worse to mind-breaking insanity for the victims. Yet, there are still moments that try to ruin your enjoyment, including twists that are all too predictable and an ending that will have most viewers rolling their eyes as they watch it unfold and realise that it's quite simply an easy cop out (sorry, but it is).

The cast don't help, they're never being as good as they could be. Atkinson isn't even a strong enough lead, sadly, and there's not enough talent available in the pool of Elsie Bennett, Lorna Brown, Mark Chatterton, Orla Cottingham, and William Holstead to make up for it. I'm not saying any of them are awful, they just don't work together well enough to make a strong ensemble. Danny Webb stands out, despite his small amount of time onscreen, but his final moment is enough to make you want to throw something at the screen, which is again the fault of Cook and Taylor.

Ultimately disappointing, but worth a watch for the stronger moments interspersed throughout, Why Hide? is at least a horror film made by people trying to do something a bit different, which is commendable. The fact that it tries and fails still makes it better than a hundred other horror movies that are happy to just repeat what we've already seen again and again. I'll be interested in seeing what Cook does next, and hope he either lets someone else do the writing or works with someone who can recognise and call out the more obvious errors of judgement.


Here's a Christmas triple-pack of horrors.
Americans can get this double-pack.

Friday 14 December 2018

Yule Love It: Christmas Encore (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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