Thursday 31 December 2020

Santa Jaws (2018)

Directed by Misty Talley, her fourth shark movie in a row, Santa Jaws is a film that is memorable for a number of reasons, and they're not the reasons you might expect. It's as ridiculous as the title suggests, but done in a way that shows those involved were trying to make something entertaining and witty, and not JUST anything they could tack the memorable title on to.

Reid Miller is Cody, a talented young artist who has illustrated a comic about a shark wearing a Santa hat on its dorsal fin. The shark is lured by the trimmings of Christmas (lights, songs, etc), but those things may also be the secret to getting rid of it. And getting rid of it becomes the main focus when Cody uses a magic pen one night, unwittingly bringing his fictional creation to life. Cody teams up with his friend, Steve (Hawn Tran), a cute new girl next door (Jena, played by Courtney Lauren Cummings), and his older brother, Josh (Arthur Marroquin), to try and stop people being eaten by this monster. And most of the people targeted are Cody's family, because of the wish he made while using the magic pen.

As so many others have already said, Santa Jaws exceeds expectations, mainly thanks to the strange tone it has. Writer Jake Kiernan (with only this to his name, so far) has taken elements from some Christmas movies, mixed in a magical family adventure, and then placed a killer shark right in the middle of it all. It shouldn't work, yet it somehow does. 

The shark is most often just shown as that fin with a Santa hat on, which works brilliantly as a main image, but you have to be willing to accept a very mixed level of quality when it comes to the special effects, many of them using accessories like candy canes or Christmas lights. Talley seems to know that less is more, but she also knows that viewers who embrace the fun of the concept will want to see some gloriously demented images onscreen. She strikes a nice balance, and anyone who is aware of what they are getting into will be unlikely to complain. And how can you not be slightly aware of what you are getting into with a film called Santa Jaws.

Miller is a decent young lead, and Cummings, Marroquin, and Tran work well enough alongside him. Scott Allen Perry is good fun, playing the owner of a local comic shop (and someone who at one point tries his luck with the magic pen), and Miles Doleac is a highlight as Uncle Mike, someone who seems from the very beginning to be set up as a prime a-hole, but who ends up being not that bad at all.

It may not be up there with the many other shark movies you could choose to watch, but Santa Jaws may end up being a minor annual Christmas viewing tradition for those who want some genre fun without always having to go to the usual selection of killer Santa/killer Krampus movies. It doesn't manage to be legitimately great, but it does manage to be pretty good. And it certainly feels quite unique.


If you have enjoyed my usual December travels through the wide and varied land of Christmas movies, as well as the usual diversions, then feel free to buy me a coffee/cocoa/juice here. Thank you, and have a very Happy Hogmanay.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

Prime Time: A Shoe Addict's Christmas (2018)

Noelle (Candace Cameron Bure) is the shoe addict of the title, a woman who works in a department store and seems to have nothing too wrong with her life. But think again. Not only has Noelle abandoned her dream job of making the most of her talent for photography, but she also doesn’t have a man. It has been years since her last relationship, which means the most important thing needed to make her life complete is a man. Of course. Maybe it could be her new upstairs neighbour, a nice fireman named Jake (Luke Macfarlane). That all depends on the changes she can make when given a chance to revisit crucial past moments by an angel named Charlie (Jean Smart).

Based on a novel by Beth Harbison, writer Rick Garman and director Michael Robison show that they know their stuff when it comes to the perfect seasonal TV movie for their star/producer, Bure. The slim plot is a fun riff on A Christmas Carol, and there are enough decent supporting characters to keep it all from resting completely on the shoulders of the leads, although Bure, Smart, and Macfarlane are more than up to the task.

Bure is a likeable lead, and it’s obvious why she makes such a good leading lady for this kind of fare, and she veers easily between confusion, excitement, dejection, and determination to prove someone right/wrong. Macfarlane is the perfect guy, of course, and his main characteristic is a longing to be taken seriously while also still having some fun, and Smart is wonderful in her angelic role, sometimes seeming nervous as she learns some tricks of the trade and spending other moments almost winking at viewers as she pretends to be ignorant of pieces moving into the exact places she wants them. Dam Willmott is Noelle's father, Tenika Davis is an understanding and supportive friend, Lorna, and Kristian Bruun and Marcia Ricossa are Noelle's main bosses.

It’s very predictable, of course, but the script and direction take you to the expected destination with one or two welcome attempts to wrongfoot you while the plot unfolds (oh, I forgot to say, Charlie gives Noelle shoes to wear, and those shoes take her to certain points in her life that can change the path she is due to stay on). For the kind of film it is, this is superior fare. I would happily watch it again, and recommend it to others, if only for the sense of fun and mischief that Smart brings to every scene she's in.


Tuesday 29 December 2020

Juleblod AKA Christmas Blood (2017)

Written and directed by the aptly-named Reinert Kiil (well, it's close enough), Juleblod is a typical tale of a Santa taking an extreme approach to separating the names on the naughty list from the names on the nice list.

Jørgen Langhelle is Nissen, a dangerous killer who has been on a killing spree that has lasted over a decade. And he always kills people on Christmas Eve. He's working through a list, and he's checked it twice. He's also wearing a Santa suit. Once caught, the cops breathe a sigh of relief. That only lasts a few years, however, because he eventually escapes. And it's right back to his favourite Christmas "hobby". He's pursued by a couple of determined officers of the law, Thomas Rasch (Stig Henrik Hoff) and Terje Hansen (Sondre Krogtoft Larsen), with one man a bit newer to the case, while the other helped to lock Nissen up years ago. And there's a group of horny young women looking to have a party, oblivious to the fact that they may be in danger from a killer.

There are two main flaws with Juleblod. The first is the pacing. It's a strangely sedate slasher movie, although that's easier to accept with some of the stark and impressive visuals you get. There are a number of occasions in which the killer is shown just loitering behind a character, or observing a scene putting a lot of people on the naughty list, and they're nicely composed. There's no denying that this is a bit slower to kick into gear than your average slasher movie though, which means you have to hope that the third act makes things worthwhile (don't worry . . . it does).

The second main flaw is the selection of characters. The cast all do well in their roles, and I'm not saying that it's impossible to differentiate one individual from another, but it's certainly hard to think of anyone as a highlight once the end credits have rolled. This may be as much down to my own ignorance as it is down to the script, because I am much less familiar with Norwegian film stars, but I suspect there are also at least two or three characters more than necessary. Anyway, the cops do their sleuthing (badly), the ladies do their partying (quite well), and there are some guys around to display varying degrees of sleazy unpleasantness (to put it mildly, their transgressions range from infidelity to rape).

The kills are good though, and I mean they're really good. This is a film that rewards patient horror fans, although it still doesn't quite do enough to make up for the mis-steps. There's an enjoyably chilly atmosphere throughout, however, and at least two of the deaths are so blood-soaked and over the top that they stick in the memory much easier than the kaleidoscope of cast members. Kiil definitely knows what he's doing when it comes to the technical side of things, be it shot choice or inventive deaths. I just hope he makes more movies in this vein with some better pacing and a smaller group of potential victims.

6/10 (coffee, tea, or even hot chocolate can make you my special friend).

Monday 28 December 2020

Mubi Monday: Evolution (2015)

I'm not sure what the overall opinion of Evolution is, but this is one of those times when I have already convinced myself that many other people love it while I shout at the clouds like some angry, unfeeling, heathen. It's not a good film, despite some lovely visuals, and it's a film that does things in a way that actually annoys me. Feel free to rush to correct me, I didn't find anything here that had any deep meaning, any movie-world logic, or anything that was really worth my time.

Max Brebant is Nicolas. He's a young boy who lives on an island with a lot of other young boys. There are also mothers there. That's it. When Nicolas finds a corpse underwater, this starts him on a journey of detection and discovery that reveals some intriguing mysteries about the way of life on the island.

I was about halfway through this movie when I regretted picking it to review. By the time it finished, I was absolutely exasperated. Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Alante Kavaite (and there's also  a credit for Geoff Cox there), wants to deliver a gorgeous-looking mood piece, and for some of the runtime does just that. It's a shame that she then puts a small amount of energy into adding some plot elements that nobody seems to REALLY care about. One or two decent moments aside, this is a film that would have worked much better without trying to provide anything like a standard plot. You know that you're not going to get many, if any, answers, and it's just a case of waiting around, trying to stave off boredom, until the inevitable ambiguous ending plays out in front of you.

The acting seems just fine from everyone involved, but it's hard to judge. Hadzihalilovic doesn't want anyone delivering too much dialogue, or doing anything beyond moving where she wants them to go in frame, and that makes every performance feel as if it's someone making the minimal amount of energy while their body is moved/placed how the director needs it.

I'll mention the cinematography by Manuel Dacosse, who deserves praise, but it's hard for me to work up any enthusiasm for anyone else involved. I guess the score, by Jesús Díaz and Zacarías M. de la Riva, is quite nice at times. And there's some nice editing from Nassim Gordji Tehrani. I don't often namecheck people in these different roles, because a movie is a collaborative effort firmly guided by a director working from a script, but Evolution at least reminded me of how other people can still be doing their best work in a film not really deserving of them.

Feel free to give this a watch for yourself, and I am sure that at least some people will want to tell me how wrong I am in my rush to dismiss this. But if you end up disliking it as much as I did, well, don't say that you weren't warned.


Sunday 27 December 2020

Netflix And Chill: Let It Snow (2019)

Three people wrote the book that this screenplay, written by another three people, was based on. That's six people altogether. Okay, the book is three thematically-linked stories, but it still seems like six is an awful lot of people to come up with a film that feels very much like something John Hughes should have come up with over twenty years ago. Just with much better representation.

Anyway, let's rattle through some of the storylines. It's snowing. On Christmas Eve. Julie (Isabela Merced) bumps into Stuart (Shameik Moore) on a train that then grinds to a halt. Stuart is a famous singer trying to enjoy some time not being recognised. He and Julie end up heading to a nearby waffle house. Also at that same waffle house is Keon (Jacob Batalon), hoping to get his shift done and then throw a great party for anyone who decides to stick around. Dorrie (Liv Hewson) works at the waffle house, and is upset when she has to serve a girl (Kerry, played by Anna Akana) that she had an amazing date with, only to find that her attitude seems completely different while she is surrounded by her friends. Dorrie is also infuriated by her friend, Addie (Odeya Rush), who is having her standard relationship issues that seem to stem from her own insecurities. And Tobin (Mitchell Hope) hangs out with Angie (Kiernan Shipka) without being able to tell her how he really feels, which becomes harder for him as she enjoys the company of JP (Matthew Noszka). They are also eventually heading towards the waffle house. 

Director Luke Snellin has a number of credits to his name already, all of them being shorts or TV show episodes. This may not be the most sophisticated material for a feature debut, but he knows how to handle it, and how easy it is to forgive the more cheesy moments when everything is so well put together.

The script is chock full of teen angst about very teen issues, but that doesn't mean they're all light and easy to dismiss. The characters with the less painful situations (wanting to throw a great party, wanting to spend some time out of the spotlight) are played by actors who help them remain just as appealing as those dealing with more serious issues (unrequited love, an ill parent, struggles with people who may resent their sexual orientation). Which isn't to say that the latter characters are portrayed by any lesser players, it just highlights the great casting all around.

Moore is someone I have enjoyed since seeing him in the excellent Dope, and he gives a winning turn here, working well with Merced (who I last saw in the enjoyable Dora The Explorer movie . . . yes, it IS enjoyable). Hewson shines in her role, and Hope and Shipka have you rooting for their friendship to turn into something more, while Batalon continues to be a fun and enjoyable onscreen presence. Rush and Akana are a little bit hampered by how their characters act for most of the runtime, but that's just how the script treats them until the expected changes in the finale. You also get an enjoyable supporting turn from Joan Cusack, as a woman who drives a tow truck while wearing a lot of tin foil (she's actually credited as Tin Foil Woman).

This is not a film for cynics, and not a film for those who cannot remember how painful it can be to not be spending time with the love of your life as a teenager (because you're obviously going to have a romance that lasts forever). It's a light and lovely comedy drama that serves as an enjoyable seasonal distraction, despite not focusing on the Christmas trimmings we normally get in a movie set at that time of year.


Saturday 26 December 2020

Shudder Saturday: The Pale Door (2020)

The sophomore directorial feature from director Aaron B. Koontz, who has spent some time honing his craft with numerous shorts, including his segments in the mixed bag horror comedy anthology that is Scare Package, The Pale Door has a number of big names attached to draw horror movie fans to it. From producer Joe R. Lansdale to cast members Pat Healy and Noah Segan, there are plenty of names to prick up your ears. But try to ignore your ears.  This is not a terrible film, far from it, but it's nowhere near as good as it could be.

The plot is simple enough. An outlaw gang (headed up by Duncan) are planning a profitable train robbery. But when one of the gang loses out in a shoot-out, Duncan is reluctantly persuaded to use his younger brother, Jake. The robbery doesn't get too messy, but it turns out that the treasure being transported is a young woman named Pearl. Pearl convinces the gang to take her home, where they will receive a warm welcome and a reward. They'll receive a lot more than that, considering her town houses a multitude of dangerous creatures.

The biggest problem with the first half of The Pale Door is that it feels as if it is retreading material we already saw executed so well in Dead Birds. Unfortunately, the problem with the second half is that it becomes so predictable and dull that you wish it would get back to trying to emulate Dead Birds. The problem seems to lie with the script, co-written by Koontz with Cameron Burns and Keith Lansdale. The cast do what they can, but they're weighed down by the obviousness of the plotting, and also the moments that Koontz decides to drag out for what seems an interminably long time (seriously, the final scenes in this movie feel like they add half an hour to the whole bloody thing).

Knighton is good as Duncan, Devin Druid is your typical reluctant kid acting tough, and does well, and Bill Sage is a central part of the outlaw gang, and someone always willing to do whatever needs to be done to save their own skin. Stan Shaw and Pat Healy do solid work, Noah Segan is underused, as is everyone else playing a gang member. Natasha Bassett does well with her wide-eyed innocent character who we know has some dark secret to her character, and Melora Walters is a highlight as Maria, a matriarchal figure in the town who is very open about her true intentions quite early on in the proceedings.

There are some good little touches throughout (figures scrabbling across walls and ceilings to attack the main characters, a sequence involving people being manipulated while they try to stay sheltered in a small church), but not enough to keep things enjoyably varied. Once things go from relative normality to bullets vs. evil denizens then it all turns a bit dull. The editing could have been sharper, and maybe having so much happen in the space of 5-10 minutes in the middle of the film wasn't the best decision. Drawing things out a bit more, in the right ways, would have helped, while other scenes would benefit from being trimmed, or excised completely.


Friday 25 December 2020

Deathcember (2020)

Horror anthology films are often an easy viewing experience, and I have mentioned this before. If you dislike one tale then another will be along soon enough to hopefully turn things around. This could have been even more likely with Deathcember, a Christmas-themed horror anthology that takes you through numerous doors (in an advent calendar style-ee) to present twisted tales for your delectation. 

There are two major flaws with Deathcember though. First of all, the runtime is just under two and a half hours. Just under two and a half hours? For a horror anthology? That's completely unnecessary. Even The Theatre Bizarre managed to be shorter than that. Both of The ABCs Of Death movies clocked in at round the two hour mark.

Second, and more importantly, very few of the stories are enjoyable. Indeed, only a few of them really feel like they need the Christmas theme to factor into the plot. I am not going to go out of my way here to pick on the segments I liked the least, mainly because there are so many people I usually like who were involved with this, but I can tell you that my highlights only amount to about 10% of the runtime. One of those, "Cracker", is a bizarre sci-fi horror tale that feels very much like an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone. The other, "They Used To Laugh And Call Him Names" is an amusingly gross blend of two seasonal favourites. That tale is the very last of 26, and one of 2 inserted amidst the end credits.

Don't get me wrong. The other tales aren't without merit. Some feel as if they haven't been fully-formed, even for a short, while some others have good ideas that aren't executed as well as they could be. And then you have "Crappy Christmas: Operation Christmas Child", which I found to be sick and absurdly amusing, but feel the need to warn others about. It's stop-motion animation, yet still manages to be disturbing at times, especially for those who may feel very uncomfortable about it being played for laughs. "The Hunchback Of Burg Hayn" is a gorgeous emulation of silent cinema, "Family Matters" is bizarre in just the right way, and "All Sales Fatal" has Tiffany Shepis as the kind of customer that you don't want to encounter as a shop worker in the Christmas shopping season. All of these shorts are good, in different ways, but not necessarily . . . enjoyable.

I am sure that there are many viewers who will enjoy this more than I did, and I at least appreciate the fact that this was created specifically to deliver this selection of bloody baubles (as far as I can tell), but it felt like a real slog to get through. I was looking forward to a feast of tasty meats, roasted veggies, plenty of sweeties, and mulled wine. I ended up with stodgy leftover turkey sandwiches, cold potatoes, the coffee creams, and some flat cola. 


Thursday 24 December 2020

Lost At Christmas (2020)

It's Fort William. It's almost Christmas. Rob (Kenny Boyle) decides to get down on one knee and propose to the woman he has been in a relationship with since high school. She turns him down. Jen (Natalie Clark) decides to surprise a man she is in love with, taking a bag of gifts with her. She's upset to learn that he is happily settled in for the season with his wife. And so begins a typical tale of two mismatched strangers who head on a road trip, attempting to get home in time for Christmas. They can reach the village of Glencoe, and an inn populated by people who seem to be avoiding the usual Christmas festivities, but can they get any further?

Expanded from the 2015 short, Perfect Strangers, Lost At Christmas is a film that would be easier to dismiss if it wasn't working within the parameters of a standard Christmas movie. The character development is, well, it's thin on the ground, and everything that happens is done in a decidedly unrealistic, tick-the-tropes-checklist, way. But it's a Christmas movie, and everyone knows how I judge these movies differently from other types of movies.

Director Ryan Hendrick, who co-wrote the film with Clare Sheppard (both having worked together on the original short), wants to make something that adheres to the rules of this kind of thing, but only until he wants to commit a u-turn on things and show that the rules are there to be broken. Except . . . well, we very rarely watch Christmas movies to see the rules being broken. We watch them to know what we're getting. It's a testament to the quality of the film if it can impress and amuse viewers while working within the limitations of "the genre". Sticking to the rules until you don't want to just somehow feels like a cheat.

The leads do well in their roles, but Clark is the better of the two. She has the energy and enthusiasm, while trying to cover up her own pain for a lot of the runtime. Boyle is fine, but spends a lot of the film looking a bit too much like a cold Rick Astley to be completely likeable. The supporting cast is made up of a number of familiar Scottish faces, or faces familiar to Scottish viewers, including Sylvester McCoy, Sanjeev Kohli, and Clare Grogan. Frazer Hines also has fun in his role, the buddy of McCoy's character, both old men dispensing wisdom and wry asides whenever they're onscreen.

There are some laughs here and there, and the obligatory third act turnaround for people who have been resistant to the charms of Christmas, but the rest of the movie fails to follow on from a solid opening sequence. There isn't any major last-minute revelations, no tension is created (even though tension created in these movies is fleeting, as we know what needs to happen), and the very last scene . . . well, the less said about that the better. 

I still enjoyed this enough. I'll just never want to revisit it, and can't highly recommend it to others.


Wednesday 23 December 2020

Window Wonderland (2013)

Sloan Van Doren and Jake Dooley are a couple of work rivals, window dressers who are given a shot at a promotion when the previous big name moves on. They are allowed to work on one window each, with the results being judged by their manager, Fitch, based on the reaction from onlookers, and how that translates into sales. Sloan and Jack have a love-hate relationship, of course, and Sloan also has issues dealing with her cold boyfriend, Kenneth, and trying to stop people from realising that her mother works as an attendant in the ladies room of the department store. At least both of our leads enjoy chatting to Mac, the man who keeps himself busy cleaning the exterior of the store.

Written by Tippi and Neal Doborofsky, a pair who have a number of TV movies under their belt, and directed by Michael M. Scott, who has a similarly extensive TV movie filmography, Window Wonderland is really enjoyable for those looking to enjoy the usual mix of drama, romance, and mild comedy that most Christmas TV movies provide. It's a simple premise, but used well, and the plot throws in a new development every 15-20 minutes to keep viewers on their toes. Not that any of them are hard to spot, especially if you have seen a handful of other movies like this, but they make the journey to the satisfyingly foreseeable ending all the more enjoyable.

Despite the solid work done in the writing and direction, however, a big part of the success of Window Wonderland lies with the cast. Chyler Leigh is a good female lead, her character being exasperated by her colleague, but also warming to him over time (of course). Paul Campbell gets to have a lot of fun in the role of Jake, and his mannerisms and dialogue reminded me of Joel McHale (who I nominate for the role if this is remade for a cinematic release in the next couple of years, which I know is VERY unlikely to happen). Naomi Judd is Rita, happy with her job, even if some others may be embarrassed by it, and Terence Kelly is the standard wise and sweet older character we always get in these movies. Matty Finochio and Cameron Mathison are both there to cause problems, the former being a manager who ensures that our leads know just how much is at stake and the latter a boyfriend who seems permanently focused on career and image.

While working towards what we all expect from a Christmas TV movie finale, something with romance, sweetness and some final revelations, Window Wonderland keeps everything bubbling away nicely. There are lots of little amusing lines, situations that create tension without ever feeling too dangerous or harmful for anyone involved, and plenty of Christmas spirit (with an important lesson about being yourself, and being happy in yourself). It's a delightful piece of work, and one of a number of these movies that have kept me smiling throughout the runtime this year. Maybe I've been finding better examples, just by chance, or maybe the constant barrage of bad news throughout 2020 has made me more receptive to the simple comforting effect of these movies.


Tuesday 22 December 2020

A Christmas For The Books (2018)

AKA Christmas By The Book.

Chelsea Kane plays Joanna Moret, a lifestyle guru who has also published a successful book about weighing up your relationship by a series of auditing rules. Drew Seeley is Ted Domrose, a young man who has just been ditched by his lady, Valerie (Alanna LeVierge), when she realised that their numbers didn't add up right, as it were. When Joanna is offered the job of creating a fantastic Christmas for George MacAllen (Gary Brennan) and his son, Del (Chad Connell), she wants everything to be perfect. Which means they mustn't find out that she split from her own boyfriend some time ago. So she ends up asking Ted to help her, and assures him that she will help him win back Valerie in exchange.

Written by Thommy Hutson, who may be known to horror fans for his involvement with the fairly definitive feature documentaries on the Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street franchises, this is as predictable as most films of its ilk, anchored by leads who are pleasant enough, but just not quite as good to spend time with as some other TV movie mainstays. Director Letia Clouston has made a few of these films recently, although far from the lengthy list of titles that we see from some directors, and it shows. This has nothing to make it memorable in any way, despite being put together competently enough. Now I know that you're thinking "well, these things are never memorable anyway", and you'd be right, in a way. But if you're a fan of these movies, if you've seen enough of them, then you know that there's usually some aspect that can stand out, whether it's appealing leads, picture-perfect snow-covered scenes, a few witty lines from a supporting character, or the big final set-piece that sees Christmas cheer being spread while new romance is consumated (in a chaste way though, just sealing it with a kiss).

Kane and Seeley are decidedly okay. The former spends far too long sticking by her own guidelines though, despite having first-hand knowledge of how they don't necessarily apply, and that leaves Kane slightly mired. Seeley doesn't have that problem, he's just not got that spark to him, and has no cute chemistry with his co-star. Brennan and Connell are fine as the people wanting a great job done perfectly, and also willing to soften at times when they need to view Kane's character as a full human being, and not just a guru/event planner. The highlight is LeVierge, who comes swirling into the proceedings like a small snowstorm, and adds some much-needed energy with her few scenes. It's just a real shame that she's not in it more.

Once again, this is absolutely fine to put on for this time of year, a bit of background entertainment while you get on with everything that needs done on the run up to Christmas. It just doesn't do anything more, and is easily pushed to the back by so many other Christmas TV movies that do exactly the same thing, just a little bit better.


Monday 21 December 2020

Mubi Monday: A Short Film About Killing (1988)

I've seen a few films now from Krzysztof Kieslowski and I must continue to enjoy his work, otherwise I wouldn't work hard to review some of them. It usually takes me a good minute or two just to make sure I am spelling his name correctly. His Three Colours trilogy is rightly celebrated, but his TV mini-series, Dekalog, often has more praise heaped upon it. Deservedly so. Having just watched two movies that were expanded from episodes of that mini-series (the other being A Short Film About Love), I am in no doubt that Kieslowski has a filmography I need to explore even further. Because I've yet to see something from him that hasn't impressed me.

This is, as the title suggests, about killing. Miroslaw Baka plays Jacek, a young drifter who seems intent on causing trouble, whether it's throwing stones off bridges and causing accidents or scaring off a flock of pigeons. Oh, and he eventually kills a taxi driver (played by Jan Tesarz). This leads to him being defended by a young lawyer on his first big case (Piotr, played by Krzysztof Globisz).

Co-written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, A Short Film About Killing is an amazing work of art. Although some could view it as attempting to manipulate the viewer, a lot of the scenes play out in a way that has the camera simply allowing viewers to observe everything. You get to find out more about the main characters, enough to flesh them out effectively, but you also see the ugly consequences of their actions, be they an unmotivated murder or a state-sanctioned punishment. Things are helped by the look of the film, often much darker around the outer edges, an interesting stylistic choice that has some scenes feeling like sepia-toned photographs brought to life. It also maintains the focus on whatever/whoever is onscreen.

The acting from all concerned is, well, it's quite naturalistic, despite not seeming to always be as good as it could be. Globisz is the one who has to "show" his acting the most, and he does a great job, but both Baka and Tesarz feel slightly uncomfortable in front of the camera, which is very fitting for the way their characters are. A few other people interact with the main characters, but the film is only really concerned with the connections between the three leads.

Kieslowski knows exactly what he's doing, and the title of the film certainly doesn't just refer to the murder of the taxi driver, and he also knows that it's up to each individual viewer to decide how they let things sit with their conscience. All he does is present the situation, he shows the ineffectiveness and hopelessness of a certain path, and encourages you to think things over. It is a cool customer indeed who wouldn't take that encouragement, which makes this film a resounding success.


Sunday 20 December 2020

Netflix And Chill: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)

An old-fashioned musical for Christmas, that's what Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is, and it's all the better for it. Writer-director David E. Talbert has delivered something that feels like a wonderful, comforting, pop-up book, and this has immediately become a film I can see myself wanting to visit every time December comes around.

Jeronicus Jangle is a kind and brilliant inventor. His latest toy, a small matador doll (Diego, voiced by Ricky Martin), will be the masterpiece that secures his name, and financial well-being. But Diego convinces the inventor's assistant, Gustafson, to take him away, along with a notebook full of invention ideas. It's then time to move forward thirty years, having seen Jeronicus lose his wife, grow estranged from his daughter, Jessica, and fail to recapture his spark of genius. Jessica has had her own child, Journey (Madalen Mills), and she ends up heading off to meet her grandfather (now played by Forest Whitaker). Journey and Jeronicus are quite similar in the way their brains see the world, much to the delight of young helper, Edison (Kieron L. Dyer). But the pressure is on to come up with a great invention and save the store, especially as Gustafson (now played by Keegan-Michael Key) continues to go from success to success, all thanks to that impressive notebook.

This has absolutely everything you could want from any Christmas movie looking to become a new firm favourite. The characters are memorable, the musical numbers are enjoyable, and well-choreographed, there are some great set-pieces, and everything takes part in a small, snow-covered, town that could easily be pictured on some classic Christmas-themed jigsaw puzzle.

Although not someone you may think of as being comfortable in this kind of role, Whitaker is a real delight. His character is a "bah, humbug" type, but more understandably so, due to the misfortune that has befallen him over the years. He may not be a natural for the moments of song, but that just makes it all better, because his character isn't inclined to want to sing beautiful melodies. Mills shines in her role, whether wandering around on her own or getting under her grandfather's feet, and I hope we see her build a decent little filmography in the next few years. Dyer is equally good, and enjoyably wide-eyed and impressed by so much of what he sees around him. Key and Martin do well as the main villains, a perfect combination of ruthlessness and comic incompetence (struggling to come up with another big idea when the notebook has been used up), and Lisa Davina Phillip is a real treat in the role of Ms. Johnston, a lady who delivers post and makes it clear that she'd like to find Jeronicus under some mistletoe and grab a kiss from him.

There are a few different lessons here, a main one being about patience, the whole story is framed by a wraparound that has a grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) talking to her grandchildren, and you get musical contributions from Philip Lawrence, John Legend, and Usher, to name a few. It's very hard to find something to criticise. I guess it's a bit TOO twee at times, which often happens with Christmas movies, but that's it.

Talbert can be very proud of his achievement here. It's a near-perfect modern Christmas classic. 


Saturday 19 December 2020

Shudder Saturday: A Creepshow Holiday Special (2020)

I don't know why I made a beeline for this, considering my history of being disappointed by pretty much every previous episode of this show, but common sense has never been my main strength. And it was a Shudder release that might have a hint of seasonal trimmings around it. 

Adam Pally plays Robert Weston, a man who thinks he may be a lycanthrope, and may be responsible for killing a number of people. He heads along to a Shapeshifters Anonymous meeting, headed up by a woman (Anna Camp) who claims she can turn into a cheetah. Other people are there, claiming to be able to turn into other animals, but the meeting is interrupted by an attempted invasion by many people dressed as Santa. This is where it gets Christmassy, but in a very Creepshow kind of way. Santa doesn't like shapeshifters, and he and his army of helpers will do all they can to destroy them.

Maybe a lot of the stops were pulled out for this holiday special, or maybe it's a sign of better things to come, but this is a lot of fun, and gets the feel of the Creepshow brand right more than any other episode so far. The tone is more comedic than horror, but there's a good amount of blood and gore, a nice feeling of things being a bit off-kilter, and some impressive creature design work in the second half of the episode.

The whole cast do well in their roles, with Camp and Pally making for very enjoyable leads, ably supported by Pete Burris (who can turn into a tortoise), Frank Nicotero (cousin of Greg, playing a character here who can turn into a boar), and Candy McLellan (who can turn into a hippo . . . when she dresses up, she's actually just a Furry they allow into the meeting every week). There's also Derek Russo as Ryan, a strong and silent type who only joins in with everyone for the wonderfully crazy third act.

Based on a story by J. A. Konrath, the writing and direction from Greg Nicotero is pretty perfect. Okay, I may be being a bit too positive because of my expectations going into this thing, but it's really very difficult to think of how this slice of festive fun could have been made any better, certainly under the umbrella of the Creepshow name. Some viewers may want a more sedate, traditional, Christmas horror, but that's not "on brand", as it were. Don't look for that here. This is colourful silliness, with no weak segments throughout the 45-minute runtime.

I never thought I would say this, but this special is the best Christmas-themed horror viewing I have had this year. 2020 continues to be a very odd year.


Friday 18 December 2020

Christmas In Montana (2019)

Sara Bradley (Kellie Martin) is a financial advisor sent out during the Christmas season to help rancher Travis Carlson (Colin Ferguson) figure out what he can do to secure a large loan that will save his business. Travis has a decent core business, but it soon becomes obvious that he also does a lot for the local citizens at no extra charge. Especially when it comes to Christmas-time celebrations. Travis will not be swayed on a lot of these activities - he's not going to start charging people for what have become Christmas traditions - and Sara struggles to find the right solution that will please both Travis and the bank. Meanwhile, she also gets to enjoy a lot of the activities and atmosphere, as does her daughter, Chloe (Ava Preston).

Director T. W. Peacocke has a filmography largely made up of TV show episodes. A LOT of TV episodes. Writer Julie Sherman Wolfe also has a number of TV show credits, but has spent the past few years writing a number of holiday-themed movies, so she should be familiar with the formula. And she is. Although there's nothing special here, it's in line with many other seasonal TV movies. It's just not as good as many of them.

Sara is the woman from the big city who falls for the charms of a small town, and a small town man. There are a couple of deceased figures casting large shadows (Sara is a single mother nowadays because her husband passed away, Travis carries on a lot of traditions started by his dead mother). Hot chocolate is a comfort to all, strangers become friends, who become family, and there are lessons about the true meaning of the season.

It's just a shame that the leads are quite dull. Sara and Travis don't really butt heads enough during the first act before settling into a more comfortable rapport, and Martin and Ferguson are left with many moments that rely on their chemistry together, which isn't there. Although neither have a great deal of presence, Ferguson is one of the blandest male leads I have seen recently. Preston does better, allowing herself to be welcomed into the local community, and finding some unexpected friendship and happiness. Art Hindle is the cheery grandpa figure (Pops Carson), it's nice to see him, and Victoria Snow plays Kay, an older woman who often pops round with tasty treats, and has grown closer to Pops over the years.

It may be unfair, I may have had a better run than usual lately, but Christmas In Montana is a Christmas TV movie that almost revels in its blandness. I can always remember that these things are often crafted to simply accompany viewers as they focus on other things (wrapping presents, decorating, maybe prepping some festive food), but this feels less worthwhile than so many others you could pick from the packed schedule. 


Thursday 17 December 2020

Christmas Unleashed (2019)

Becca Solano (Vanessa Lachey) is a young, successful, NYC lawyer who heads back to her small hometown for the Christmas holiday, where she looks forward to visiting her grandma, Gram Jean (Jayne Eastwood). Her ex-boyfriend, Max (Christopher Russell), never left the place, which may be why she hasn't been back in years. But Becca and Max end up teaming up when Henry, the dog they used to own together, escapes in the middle of the night and goes a-wandering all through the town. As they pursue the missing pooch, and revisit some important locations in their lives, Becca and Max start to reconnect in a way that has any onlookers wondering why they ever separated.

Gaining some easy bonus points by having a cute dog in a central role, Christmas Unleashed also benefits from two decent leads who pair up well together. Neither director Nimisha Mukerji or writer Sara Endsley have the usual large selection of seasonal fare in their filmography, but they know exactly what to do in order to meet the audience expectations. Max is a perfect man (not only handsome, but he's also the head of animal services in town), and Becca only has one major issue, which is not realising that her career path will never make her as happy as marrying Max and being the mother of his children. Of course. What career could possibly bring as much joy as the maelstrom of faeces, urine, vomit, and constant tiredness that is motherhood? None.

Lachey and Russell do well in their roles, with their characters not having any major problems getting on with one another anyway. They have a relaxed and happy vibe for most of the movie, the only point of contention being the different paths they ended up on, a journey shown in flashbacks as they spend the movie looking for Henry. Eastwood may not be onscreen for too long, but she's enjoyable enough when she is (and happens to be the only person I immediately recognised from the central cast, although I had also recently seen Barbara Patrick in Five Star Christmas). There are some other people scattered throughout the plot, but this story very much stays focused on Becca, Max, and Henry.

The biggest problem with Christmas Unleashed is just how safe and inoffensive it tries to be, all the way up to a final scene that will please viewers after a happy and sweet ending, yet will also make others roll their eyes at the old-fashioned reduction of how women find true happiness. Of course, that's often the way with these movies. Some manage to present it better than others. This is like being repeatedly hit over the head with a candy cane until you wake up in the 1950s.

But you have snow, you get more than one cute dog (because Max has a number of them at his animal shelter, of course), you get lots of people viewing the leads and giving one another a sly smile and wink as they see true love redeveloping. Basically, it's an enjoyable Christmas TV movie, and that means that you should already be aware of the character motivations and the values that you'll see celebrated.


One or two people could buy me hot chocolate here.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Prime Time: Krampus Unleashed (2016)

I don't know why I do it to myself. I have already warned others, on multiple occasions, to avoid most Christmas horror movies that use the word Krampus (except for the fun film actually just called Krampus). But then I find myself scouring the internet, and am inexorably drawn to crap like this. And this IS crap.

If I had remembered writer-director Robert Conway as the one also responsible for Krampus: The Reckoning then maybe I would have stayed away from this. Maybe. Ach, who am I trying to kid. We all know that morbid curiosity would have got the better of me eventually.

It all starts with a prologue that shows some treasure hunters finding the buried stash of a German outlaw. That stash includes a stone that houses the Krampus, and he gets to come out and cause pain and death whenever the stone is near heat. Things then move to the here and now, with people visiting family for Christmas. The stone is found again, it eventually finds some heat, and, well, Krampus appears and begins killing folk.

Despite some occasional gore effects, and one or two cast members who do much better than the rest, this is a terrible horror movie. It's the kind of movie I resent spending much time reviewing, because there's a cynical heart to it that feels like someone knew they could make a bit of money with the title, and decided to put in the minimum effort on the actual filming of the thing.

The tiniest hints of a silver lining on this cloud come from Amelia Brantley, who does well in the role of Bonnie, and Daniel Link, playing a guy called Dave who corrects everyone around him who doesn't call him David. That covers it.

There are no characters really worth caring about, no decent plot to make things feel as if they may have any proper consequences, and not nearly enough intelligence or wit to make up for the limitations of the budget and skillset being used.

At least the pacing isn't too bad, which saves this from being quite as painful a viewing experience as it could be. Some people may enjoy this enough if they've found it for free and have already filled themselves up with the right amount of alcohol (right amount = LOTS), but I could never bring myself to recommend this. It's dire.


Tuesday 15 December 2020

Good Morning Christmas! (2020)

Alison Sweeney and Marc Blucas play two TV show hosts in this Christmas TV movie. Sweeney is Melissa Merry. Blucas is Brian Bright. Their show is, of course, Today With Bright & Merry, and they are hugely popular, thanks to their onscreen chemistry. But that chemistry often disguises disagreements they have off-camera. Melissa likes to be prepared, and resents what she sees as an easy career path for Brian (who started off as a sport star, moved into a hit reality TV show, and then landed the presenting gig). Things may warrant a re-appraisal, however, when Brian hands in his notice. This makes things feel slightly different as the show begins a series of live Christmas specials from the town of Mistletoe, with the final show planned to be the time to announce Brian's departure to the public.

Perhaps it is down to the fact that daytime TV shows have that layer of forced niceness about them, perhaps it's the chemistry of the two leads, or perhaps it's just a better script than so many others, but Good Morning Christmas! is easily one of the better Christmas TV movies I have watched in recent years. There's no messing around with the formula, but it's worked well enough throughout a plot that just feels a bit less strained than most.

Director Paul Ziller does well with the resources available to him, possibly helped by the fact that he can get away with showing a lot of equipment onscreen (although that may be totally different equipment from whatever is used to actually film things, for all I know), and Riley Weston's script manages not to feel as if it is rushing anything, despite us knowing that a relationship needs to be developed, and obstacles overcome, within the 84-minute runtime. Leaving breaks for adverts.

Sweeney and Blucas certainly do their bit to help. Not only are they both very believable in their roles, they get on really well together. And not in an eye-rolling way. It's clear at the beginning that they work well on their show, despite the tension hidden off-camera, but the moments that have them learning to better appreciate one another are nicely done. Nicole Oliver is also very good, playing the show producer who can see the change gradually happening, and Matthew James Dowden, Jay Brazeau, and Kayla Heller are various Mistletoe residents who help to provide some small lessons, even if inadvertently, while Kat Ruston plays Christy, Brian's girlfriend who is happy to see him taking the next step in his career.

I'm still not going to overdo it with my praise here - even the best of these movies have to be marked down because of the adherence to formula - but this is one that I highly recommend to anyone making their way through the latest batch of festive treats in the TV schedules. Enjoy.


If you enjoy these reviews then you can buy me a hot chocolate here.

Monday 14 December 2020

Mubi Monday: Two Days, One Night (2014)

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who finds out that she has effectively been voted into unemployment when her colleagues are given a choice between her staying with the company and them all receiving their bonuses. There's one last chance for her to keep her job, having convinced a manager that she would like to talk to the others who work alongside her and have another vote, a secret ballot, after the weekend. But can she make a strong enough case to sway people who may be relying on that income boost?

Co-written and co-directed by the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), Two Days, One Night is a film that manages to strike just the right tone throughout, navigating through an unhappy main premise without turning into something completely disheartening and miserable. The camera mostly stays alongside Cotillard, but it's an intimate shooting style, as opposed to an intrusive and uncomfortable one. There are many long takes, and no dramatic music underscoring things.

Cotillard is as excellent as she usually is in the lead role, a woman trying to fight her way beyond desperate sadness to make her stand with dignity. Her character knows that she is asking a lot of the people she works with, and she doesn't attack those who cannot be converted to her cause, but she keeps trying to persuade everyone who will be eligible to take part in the second vote. Everyone in the supporting cast is just as good, but the main secondary players I will praise are Fabrizio Rongione (playing Sandra's husband, Manu) and Catherine Salée (a friend named Juliette). Both act rightfully concerned, and both seem to have more faith than Sandra for much of the runtime.

What may be most interesting to viewers of Two Days, One Night is the deliberate way in which Sandra doesn't view her colleagues as The Enemy. There are some encounters that go a lot worse than others, and at least one person she tries to talk with is a reactionary asshat, but it's made clear that the ones to blame are those who made the company decision. It's the people who are unaffected by this big decision looking on (metaphorically, although sometimes literally) as the workers are made to wrestle amongst themselves about a decisions that wasn't ever necessary.

A saddening reminder that employers hold all of the power nowadays, and that people are often at the whim of others for reasons outwith their control, this is an effective lesson to those who want to take it in. From business to governments, the methodology has been the same for some time now. Create a bad situation, leave the workers to try and make the situation better for themselves, and reap the benefits while many people look around to blame anyone but the actual culprits

Very much worth your time though. After all, knowledge is power.


Sunday 13 December 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Princess Switch: Switched Again (2020)

I am well aware that I enjoyed The Princess Switch more than most people. Or, to put it correctly, I was one of the few people who enjoyed it unironically. I was especially complimentary about the lead performances from Hudgens, taking on two characters, and doing a great job of portraying those characters pretending to be one another.

This sequel, featuring a third character portrayed by Hudgens (something I mentioned as an obvious sequel idea before this was even announced), brings everyone back together for a plot that has Hudgens throwing a spanner in the works as . . . an evil schemer.

Just like I said. Although nobody decided to use any of my title suggestions.

Anyway, Stacy (Hudgens) is quite happy. Margaret (Hudgens) is less happy, dealing with the pressure of her duties after separating from Kevin (Nick Sagar). And Fiona (Hudgens) is a relative who thinks she can plan a little switcheroo to get her hands on a fortune and generally improve her life.

Mike Rohl directs once again, and writers Robin Bernheim Burger and Megan Metzger are back with to plot out another adventure for the characters they created, and the only change in the central cast would appear to be Mia Lloyd taking over the role of young Olivia (Kevin's Daughter). It's clear that viewers should know what they're getting even before they press play. It's something different, but almost exactly the same. Like so many other Christmas movies.

Despite aiming to never do it again, Stacy and Margaret switch once again, temporarily, which causes a headache for the scheming Fiona. Kevin wonders if there's a chance to repair a relationship, Prince Edward (Sam Palladio) remains quite sweetly oblivious of identity changes, until the finale forces everyone to divulge the complete truth, and you have characters trying to overcome their self-doubt, carefree moments in the snow, and a few dubious characters helping Fiona try to get away with her planned crime.

I'm not going to pretend that I didn't still enjoy this, but that's due more to my own goodwill than it is due to the quality of the film itself. The first film felt contrived in a way that was necessary for the whole central premise. This feels contrived in a way that is a bit, well, lazy and careless. Although the main plot point about Fiona is a fun direction for the film to take, it's mishandled, while almost every other aspect feels like a retread given very little actual thought. I know, you can say that about most films like this. That's true. It just feels more irritating this time, mainly because everything was in place to make this an enjoyable sequel. It sadly ends up just being very average instead.

Hudgens is once again good in her role (although even her performances don't feel quite as . . . sharp this time around), and both Palladio and Sagar are fine as the main men in her lives. Lachlan Nieboer is enjoyably easy to mistrust and dislike, playing an assistant/advisor named Antonio, and Ricky Norwood and Florence Hall are good fun as Fiona's accomplices. Lloyd is fine in the role of young Olivia, and Suanne Braun enjoys reprising the role of Mrs. Donatelli.

Perhaps on any better day I would have enjoyed this more than I did. I somehow thought it would manage to be on a par with the original. I didn't hate it, but I didn't enjoy it half as much as I expected to. And I don't go into these things with high expectations.


Saturday 12 December 2020

Shudder Saturday: Depraved (2019)

I may have mentioned it before, but Larry Fessenden is seen as a bit of a glowing light within the horror community. People have so many nice things to say about him, and he always seems to be happy to lend his time/ear/advice to others asking for it. In fact, I KNOW I have mentioned this before, because it is how I started my review of Wendigo (a film I didn't really enjoy). I had more hope for Depraved, although it was completely unfounded. This is not a film I have heard anyone really discuss, but I wanted to enjoy a movie written and directed by Fessenden.

Well, I did. Phew!

A modern reworking of the classic Frankenstein tale, Depraved starts with a young couple, Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloë Levine), having a small argument. It's nothing permanent, although it's the final exchange within their relationship. Because Alex is killed. We then cut to the birth of a man named Adam (Alex Breaux), a man stitched together and brought to life by Henry (David Call), helped in his endeavours by the far-from-magnanimous Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Teaching Adam how to develop his skills is an interesting process, and leads to difficult times when his internal turmoil leads to him lashing out at those around him. He may also have some part of him connected to Lucy.

Not interested in gore or major set-pieces, although it's not a bloodless affair, Fessenden impressed with his approach to the material here. In fact, pair this up with Frankenstein (2015) and you have a very interesting double-bill of movies that manage to provide fresh takes on the text while never losing sight of the moral quandaries at the heart of the story. Neither feel as if they're trying to be too clever, or trendy, which can often happen with modernised takes on classic tales.

But let's get back to this. While Fessenden has taken care to have his writing and direction display the material in a suitable, and unfussy, way (with some nice visual touches showing the mental development of Adam), he's helped by a cast who do some great work for him. Call is a fantastic "Frankenstein", caring for his creation, yet also conflicted by the ways he wants to both push him and keep him under control. Breaux is an impressive creature, his look changing at various times in the movie, and delivers a physical performance that embodies that strong man-child figuring things out amidst a lot of confusion and mental struggles. Leonard is a lot of fun as Polidori, the one who is really trying to pull the strings, and Levine is likeable as Lucy, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, and Addison Timlin help out as, respectively, Liz, Georgina, and Shelley.

If you know Fessenden, then you know that he often provides genre treats that don't like to conform to the box-ticking that some fans may prefer. That's a really good thing when the material is strong enough, and the final result interesting, as it is here. And when it doesn't work out, well, you still have to admire his constant attempts to deliver something new to audiences. I'll take a Fessenden misfire over 100 other attempts to make the next Paranormal Activity. And I'll take a Fessenden bullseye over pretty much every major studio attempt to revisit/reboot the horror IPs that they view as potential big money-makers.


Friday 11 December 2020

Santa Claws (1996)

Written and directed by John Russo, and I use both of those terms very loosely, Santa Claws is a cheap, and fairly shoddy, horror that delivers some terrible acting, some poor kills, and plenty of gratuitous nudity. So I can't say that I completely hated it.

The lovely Debbie Rochon plays Raven, an actress who has made her name in a variety of roles that made the most of her physical appeal. She's having some marriage troubles with Eric (John Mowod) and is spending a fair amount of time in the company of a dedicated fan, Wayne (Grant Cramer). Wayne offers to babysit Raven's children, but just intends to drug them and give himself an alibi for a number of killings. And it's all connected to an incident in his youth, when he caught his mother in bed with someone dressed as Santa Claus and shot them both dead.

That previous paragraph may have inadvertently made Santa Claws sound more substantial than it actually is. There's a plot, yes, but it's just an excuse for various moments in which women get nude and/or gyrate while someone films them. Which works just fine for me, especially when it is Rochon as the focus of any such scenes.

Russo is savvy enough to have made both this and Scream Queen's Naked Christmas at the same time, with the latter a "documentary" featuring a number of shared cast members. Although this is not a very satisfying approach (mind you, I am sure it got them double the income from one main expense), anything that keeps Russo away from further cashing in on Night Of The Living Dead, the screenplay that remains the highlight of his entire filmography.

If it wasn't clear enough already, Rochon is the highlight of the movie, in a role that doesn't seem entirely dissimilar to her real life. She actually seems to be having fun here, delivering dialogue that illustrates the good and the bad about making a career as a Scream Queen. Nobody else comes close to having her presence, although Kramer is more fun in the moments that have him acting even more insane. Sue Ellen White and Amanda Madison (billed here as Christine Cavalier) are the other memorable characters. And when I say memorable I mean "naked".

Look, it's obvious from the earliest moments that this is not good. It's also obvious that it is made for a very specific audience. I am a member of that very specific audience, a fan of Scream Queens who worked damn hard to earn that position (don't get me started on a rant about the people claiming this title nowadays without deserving it). I love the horror workout featuring Linnea Quigley. Despite me being receptive to material like this, THIS particular gem didn't work for me. At all. But it still gets points for having Rochon in the lead.


Thursday 10 December 2020

Fatman (2020)

As if the year 2020 wasn't quite mad enough as it is, it ends with a film in which Mel Gibson plays an unhappy, tired, Santa Claus who is due to be targeted by the gun sights of a grudge-bearing Walton Goggins. Yes, that is the basic plot of Fatman, but there's a bit more to it.

Times are tough. Less kids are making it on to the "nice" list, which means gift-delivering Chris, AKA Santa, is leaving more lumps of coal than ever before, and this means that he and his wife (Ruth, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) can barely afford to keep their household in working order. Chris reluctantly ends up taking on a military contract, a gig that will at least make up for the income shortfall in recent years. Meanwhile, a spoilt young kid (Billy, played by Chance Hurstfield) pays for someone to kill Santa. That someone seems to have been waiting for this moment for most of his life.

Written and directed by Eshom and Ian Nelms (two brothers who have been working on movies together for a number of years now), Fatman is an interesting idea dragged down by a couple of major mis-steps. Although technically competent, and fairly well-plotted (with the exception of what feels like one major plot hole - why didn't the character played by Goggins task himself with hunting down Santa years before a rich kid hired him?), it's never as amusing or entertaining as it could be.

First off, you have the problem of the casting. I still don't mind seeing Mel Gibson onscreen, but he's not a good fit for the role of Santa. Even this Santa. He's neither good nor bad, just a grouchy old man who can no longer seem to bring any joy to the world. 

Second, you have the problem of the tone. Is this supposed to be funny? It's not, not really. It's also not tense, not thrilling, and doesn't have any drama that fully engages viewers with the material. Going in to this blind, it may even take some viewers a little while to join the dots. That could have been part of the fun if the trailer hadn't given everything away already.

Third, it's kind of pointless. A lot of movies can be pointless, that's no major negative in and of itself, but this one is pointless in a way that feels annoyingly unaware of itself. By the end of the movie you may find yourself thinking not that much has changed, despite some characters stating otherwise, and you'd be right. There's magic used, and forgotten, when it's convenient, and none of the consequences have any proper impact. It's not quite a lump of coal in your stocking, but it's the small fruit selection you're made to eat in between handfuls of chocolates.

I've already mentioned Gibson being a bad fit for the role, but at least Goggins does better, despite his character being occasionally mishandled (although his single-minded approach to his main task is great). Hurstfield gives an absolutely perfect performance as the rich kid not used to things not going his way, Marianne Jean-Baptiste does a good job as Ruth, AKA Mrs. Claus, and there are plenty of solid supporting turns.

Worth watching as an oddity, Fatman isn't one you're likely to revisit often (if at all). Yet it feels fitting that this is one of the new Christmas-themed movies we got to help us towards the end of 2020.


Wednesday 9 December 2020

Prime Time: Slay Belles (2018)

I wanted to like Slay Belles, I really did. It had so much to appeal to me, not least of which was the plucky nature of it. This is a film made with very limited resources by people who seem to want to just create something fun. Unfortunately, the fun doesn't really come across that well, and it ends up just being annoying and sloppy.

Three women (Alexi, Dahlia, and Sadie) are heading for a but of urban exploring at a neglected Santa Land venue, to record their antics and put them on the internet, when they cross paths with a dangerous Krampus. It's not looking good for them. On the plus side, however, they also end up crossing paths with Santa Claus. He just doesn't look quite as they imagined him to be.

Directed by Dan Walker, who also co-wrote the movie with Jessica Luhrssen, this is quite the little oddity. There are some fleeting moments of decent gore, and a fairly good Krampus creation, but it's not enough to satisfy those who are seeking a good bit of bloodshed and nastiness. There is humour, I guess, but none of it worked for me, and I cannot imagine many finding things hilarious (although it's all subjective, so who knows). The horror elements are never there for long enough to be effective, sandwiched in between the attempts at comedy, and therefore rendering them completely ineffective.

What you're left with is a film that is happy to be about nothing more than three attractive women in eye-pleasing costumes bickering with someone who doesn't look like Santa, while he proves he actually is Santa. If that sounds like a fun time to you then go for it. It quickly became tiresome for me, and the slim 77-minute runtime dragged.

Kristina Klebe, Susan Slaughter, and Hannah Wagner play the three leads. They're not great, but they do what they're asked to do for the sake of the silly plot. Barry Bostwick is more fun in the role of Santa. Diane Salinger is also fun, playing a bartender named Cherry, and Stephen Ford is amusingly ill-prepared as someone who may be able to help our leads. Richard Moll has a cameo, as does Darren Lynn Bousman, who is also an executive producer.

It seems to me that someone wanted to make a film, and they got just enough people and resources together to get it done, but didn't have enough imagination or wit to create a final product matching whatever was in their head. On the one hand, at least they got their movie made, and fair play to them for that. On the other hand, this is almost painful at times, and I would have much preferred to see something made with an even lower budget by someone with a better vision, approach, and style.


Tuesday 8 December 2020

Happiest Season (2020)

Directed, and co-written, by Clea DuVall, Happiest Season is the LGBTQ+ Christmas movie that you never knew you wanted. And it's yet another great role for Kristen Stewart, who continues to prove herself with performances so often ignored by her detractors.

Stewart is Abby, a young woman excited by the prospect of spending Christmas with her partner, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), and Harper's family. She hasn't met any of them before, which makes the whole thing a very big deal. There's just one problem. Harper hasn't come out to her family. She asks Abby to play along for the time being, pretending to be just a flatmate, and assures her that she will tell everyone when the time is right. The expected shenanigans ensue, with Abby trying her best to please everyone.

A great blend of comedy, Christmas trimmings, and moments that feel painfully honest, Happiest Season really brings out the best in everyone involved. DuVall has been honing her directorial skills for a number of years, and shows just how good a match she is for this material (which feels very autobiographical at times, a personal movie that allows DuVall to share some of her own feelings/experiences from her life). There are moments that many viewers may think take things a bit too far, with people watching and insisting that if they were Abby then they would have left almost at the very start of things, but think back to your own relationships, to times when someone has asked you to just play along with a white lie, or to attend a function you didn't want to be at, and remember how long you would put up with it for the sake of someone you love. Meanwhile, your partner starts to relax, and forgets how uncomfortable, or neglected, you might be feeling. That's what happens here, but with the added tricky knot of sexuality, and someone being too afraid to show others who they really are.

Stewart is a great presence in what is arguably her best role yet, perhaps giving her moments she also already felt familiar with. Davis is also very good, and her casting in the role of Harper makes it a bit easier to tolerate her character as she continues to become a bit more selfish and insensitive. Alison Brie and Mary Holland play two very different sister, both competing alongside Davis for the affections of their parents (played by Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber). Brie does her all-too-perfect act that she's done a number of times before, while Holland, who also co-wrote the movie, is a scene-stealer as someone who hasn't achieved as much as either of her sisters, but is at least relatively happy in her life. As for the aforementioned Steenburgen and Garber, both are excellent, with Steenburgen having much more of the screentime, and a number of moments in which she is snippy to people destabilising her planned perfect Christmas. Aubrey Plaza and Jake McDorman are two very different ex-partners, allowing Abby to find out more about the woman she loves, a woman she is now not sure she even knows, and Dan Levy is wonderful and hilarious as John, a gay BFF who spends a lot of the movie advising Abby over the phone.

The best thing about Happiest Season is that every different element feels genuine. There are genuine laughs, there's a genuine authenticity to the central premise, and the moments that bring the drama and heart of the film feel genuine, and serve as a constant reminder of what so many people still go through in far too many households. Oh, it's also very much always a Christmas movie, so don't think I am suddenly viewing this as cinéma vérité, but the many small moments that need to feel real DO feel real.

Highly recommended, and I hope DuVall has enough success with this to allow her to pick another project that she connects to just as strongly.


Monday 7 December 2020

Mubi Monday: Essential Killing (2010)

Although a fairly slim plot (an Afghan POW escapes, and attempts to stay alive, at all costs, after being shown killing some U.S. soldiers), Essential Killing is a very interesting experience. Showing the central character in a fairly non-judgemental way, no matter how bad things get, it makes you consider whether or not the title is earned.

Vincent Gallo is Mohammed, the main character. Whether he's being tortured by his military captors, eating ants, almost freezing to death, his committed performance makes the choice of casting him more understandable (despite him very much not being from anywhere near the Middle East). The construction of the film is very much as you'd expect. You get the act of violence that leads to his capture, a few scenes of torture, the escape, the survival mode section, and a seemingly-inevitable ending.

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, who co-wrote the movie with Ewa Piaskowska, Essential Killing feels like a movie made by people who want to make a very specific point, yet don't really have enough depth and content to turn it into a full movie. Despite the slim runtime, it clocks in at about 83 minutes, this still feels a bit overlong. It needs something more, something to make the viewing experience more worthwhile, and the ending doesn't do enough to make up for the disappointment of the plodding third act.

Skolimowski has a filmography that I'm still keen to explore (and I recommend that everyone checks out the sublime Deep End from 1970), but I am sadly unfamiliar with most of his work. Essential Killing may not be an essential viewing choice, but it's one to admire. A lot of the choices made, in terms of the main character and the plotting, are interesting, at the very least, and the passive overview is not one that you'd find in many (any?) other films on this subject.

Gallo, as already mentioned, it committed to his cause. He's a strange acting presence, and always has been, but he's someone always worth giving some time to (except when he's in The Brown Bunny, which I recall being pretty dire). There's not one moment here in which he doesn't feel as if he IS this character, making one or two moments more disturbing because they seem so real. Very few others have main roles, although Emmanuelle Seigner pops up towards the end of the film, and is almost a relief from the time we've spent so closely attached to Gallo.

I won't rush to watch this again, and I wouldn't recommend it to many others, but I am glad I sat down once with this. It's certainly a film that feels like it should provide a springboard for a lot more thought and conversation, despite not actually managing to do so.


Sunday 6 December 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020)

Most of the main players return for this sequel to the Santa flick that gave Netflix a big hit two years ago. Having said that, I cannot think of many of their original Christmas content that hasn't gone down well. They have certainly done their homework, and worked with people who know what viewers will expect.

Young Kate (Darby Camp) is unhappy. She is having to spend Christmas in a warmer climate, with her brother (Teddy, played by Judah Lewis), her mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), her mother's boyfriend, Bob (Tyrese Gibson), and Bob's young son, Jack (Jahzir Bruno). So she takes the opportunity to sneak away when she can, but young Jack accompanies her. The two children end up on a cart driven by Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), who then throws them all through a wormhole, which is all part of his plan to get to Santa's Village and ruin Christmas. Why does he want to do that? That all comes out as the slim plot unfolds, with Kate and Jack doing whatever they can to help Santa (Kurt Russell) and Mrs. Claus (Goldie Hawn).

Directed by Chris Columbus (you can say many things about him, but an unsafe pair of hands he is not), The Christmas Chronicles 2 gives you everything you might want from a sequel to the first movie, without taking any risks. Columbus also co-wrote the movie with Matt Liberman, the main writer from the first movie, and it's a very enjoyable and amusing family film. Like so many other films that Columbus has helmed. But other films from Columbus are missing one vital ingredient that this has; Kurt Russell.

Yes, that's right, much like the first time around, this Christmas movie is absolutely lifted up by a turn from Russell that shows him to be the Santa we never knew we wanted. Having been an acting legend for decades, especially to fans of John Carpenter movies, Russell has the look and age to play Santa, but the baggage and cool factor to add a different kind of magic sparkle. He always has a twinkle in his eye, and genuinely seems to relish the adventures that divert him from his usual Christmas schedule.

Having Goldie Hawn play Mrs. Claus (following on from her cameo in The Christmas Chronicles) is another major plus. This isn't just a Christmas movie, this is a family affair. These stars are having a whale of a time, and viewers are simply lucky enough to watch their chemistry infuse the whole film with a warm glow. Very few people could compete with these adults, but fair play to the younger cast members for trying their best, and being helped along by the script. Camp is, in many ways, the least of the leads, but she's the unwavering heart of the film, dealing with her own complex issue as she loses herself in another Christmas adventure. Then you have Bruno, stealing a lot of his scenes with a wonderful comic turn. Dennison makes a great villain, blinded by his rage for much of the runtime, although perhaps not beyond some kind of redemption. The other characters have much less screentime, but everyone does good work.

The many CGI elves are designed for fun, rather than realism, the reindeer all look fine, the many small wonders in Santa's village are a treat, and there's nothing here to stop this becoming a new Christmas favourite for a while. Yet it is lacking something. If it wasn't for the casting, this wouldn't play half as well as it does. It's also just not quite as good as the first film, because it lacks the impact of first seeing Russell play his Santa so perfectly, and it repeats a number of tricks. If the first film was a shiny new toy, this is the party gift that seems fun at first, but is then placed in a drawer and forgotten about until someone asks you to bring it round for their Christmas party.

An easy option if you're wanting some fun for all the family, but I don't think it will become an annual tradition.