Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

AKA Night Of The Dark Full Moon.

It's funny what you discover on a never-ending journey through the years of cinema. For example, I'm a HUGE fan of Halloween. It's one of my favourite movies of all time, and my favourite horror movie. But I admit, as much as I love Carpenter, that it was hugely influenced by many films to come along beforehand. People argue over the real starting point of the slasher movie subgenre, from Agatha Christie adaptations to Mario Bava's Blood And Black Lace, but there are some who quickly cite Bob Clark's work in Black Christmas as a way to undermine the classic created by Carpenter. Strange that few of those people seem to then explain that Clark MAY have been influenced by this movie, a slasher set around Christmastime (albeit without obvious decorations and seasonal details everywhere) that features a lot of POV camerawork.

Mary Woronov plays a young woman named Diane, who ends up in the middle of a very dangerous situation. It's all to do with a house that was once owned by Wilfred Butler. His grandson, Jeffrey Butler (James Patterson), is arranging to sell the house, offloading it at a bargain price, but it seems that someone, perhaps even Jeffrey himself, wants a number of people to die before the house is handed over to a different family. Diane is the daughter of Mayor Adams (Walter Abel), one of a number of people drawn to the house by the scheming killer, and she ends up teaming up with Jeffrey, despite her suspicions, while she tried to figure out exactly what is going on.

Written by Jeffrey Konvitz and Ira Teller, this is an enjoyably twisty and twisted tale that simply undoes a lot of good work by being a bit too convoluted and reliant on the backstory, a backstory revealed in the third act via a flashback that lasts for quite a while. If the writers had found a way to spread this backstory throughout the movie, instead of throwing it in there in one big lump, then things would have been greatly improved.

The cast isn't chock full of great actors, but genre fans will enjoy Woronov in a lead role. Patterson is quite good, suitably shifty and sweaty while viewers decide whether he's good or bad.

Director Theodore Gershuny keeps things dark and grimy, which is both a plus and a minus for the movie. He does well, and the film does deserve to be seen by a wider audience, but there are a lot of minor flaws that add up to detract from the overall experience.


Unfortunately, I don't know the actual quality of the disc, so try to pick this up as cheaply as possible, until it (maybe) gets special treatment one day - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Silent-Night-Bloody-DVD/dp/B00096J1KA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1388174003&sr=8-2&keywords=silent+night%2C+bloody+night

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Christmas Bunny (2010)

I can only assume that it's the time of year making me even more forgiving than usual, allowing me to overlook numerous failings and react positively to fluff that I would normally not look twice at. Whatever the reason, be it the time of year or just my own good nature, The Christmas Bunny is yet another movie that I have watched lately, and been pleasantly surprised by.

Let me be clear from the very start. There's a lot here that isn't good. The young girl in the lead role (Sophie Bolen, playing Julia) is one of the weakest elements, and anyone after something very Christmassy will feel a bit short-changed.

Julia is a young girl with problems. Her mother isn't fit to look after her, so she is handed over to a couple (played by Madeline Vail and Colby French) who want to help her start enjoying the rest of her childhood. Julia doesn't talk to people, and sometimes reacts violently to seemingly harmless gestures, like being given a doll as a gift. She starts to open up, however, when a wounded bunny is found and she has the chance to help care for it. Unfortunately, the care of the bunny may be more than her new foster parents can afford, but there might be extra help available in the shape of Betsy Ross (Florence Henderson), an eccentric woman who looks after rabbits in need. As she does her best to keep the bunny safe and on the road to recovery, Julia starts to open up to those around her.

Written and directed by Tom Seidman, this is obviously a movie with good intentions that falls slightly short of its aims. It's more impressive when it laces the snowy sappiness with slightly darker moments (like the flashback showing why Julia ended up in care), but those are few and far between. Okay, I accept that most people wouldn't want a movie called The Christmas Bunny to be unrelentingly bleak from start to finish, but the little bit of grit hints at a better movie that could have been made.

Vail and French both do well, and are allowed to play a couple who almost feel like real people with real problems, certainly compared to many other characters in these types of movies. Henderson is the highlight, as crotchety and blunt as she is also, deep down, kind and lonely. We've seen the type many times before, often due some redemption during the festive season, but she does well in her role. And then there's Bolen, who I won't go on about. It would be unfair to keep picking on a child, despite how bad she is in the lead role.

This is one to watch on a snowy or rainy afternoon, when there's nothing else to occupy your time and you've seen most of the other choices.



Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Mistle-Tones (2012)

Tia Mowry-Hardrict plays a young woman, named Holly, who really wants a chance to join a local Christmas singing group (headed up by Tori Spelling). When she misses out, despite being the best candidate, she decides to instead create her own group and compete in a hastily-arranged "sing off" at the local mall. Working with a number of colleagues, it's a race against time to get everyone whipped into shape and believing in their own abilities.

The cast all do fine with this big bundle of predictability and Christmas schmaltz. Mowry-Hardrict (billed here just as Tia Mowry) is a pleasant enough lead, Spelling is a fun baddie, and Jonathan Patrick Moore stands out as Nick Anderson, Holly's manager who ends up being a big help once Holly discovers a secret  that she uses to temporarily blackmail him. Andy Gala, Megan Kathleen Duffy and Jason Rogel, as well as the others appearing onscreen, are all just fine.

The script, by Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas, does everything that it has to do, with no surprises. Okay, there may be one or two twists to the standard formula, but not enough to worry seasoned viewers of such seasonal fare, and everything is in place by the time the end credits roll.

Director Paul Hoen keeps everything moving along nicely. There isn't a lot of time wasted - with the very first scenes showing Holly waking up late and rushing to get along to the auditions - and one or two montage moments are enjoyable enough. It's never hilarious, or too exciting, but it manages to avoid dullness for most of the runtime.

Pleasant enough, this sits alongside many other mildly diverting TV movies made with Christmas in mind. Your life will be just fine if you never see it, but it's not a bad one to help get you into the holiday spirit.


Not available on DVD, settle for this selection instead - http://www.amazon.com/Bridesmaids-Handcuffs-Boyfriend-SnowGlobe-Princess/dp/B0096W4784/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1387819051&sr=1-2&keywords=the+mistle-tones

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Santa Claus (1959)

Thanks to those who recommended this one to me, and please let me know of any mistakes that I may have made in this review. This is one tricky film to keep track of.

Currently sitting amongst many other stinkers in the IMDb Bottom 100, Santa Claus really isn't THAT bad for a bizarre bit of Christmas entertainment for the family. Oh, it's bad, but the ineptitude is often outweighed by the enjoyable imagination on display and the commitment from everyone involved to provide audiences with a new seasonal tale, full of memorable characters and valuable lessons.

The devil doesn't like Santa (Jose Elias Moreno), what with him spreading good cheer and positivity. And that's why he gives Pitch (Jose Luis Aguirre) the job of turning kids against him and ruining Christmas. If Pitch succeeds then the devil will be pleased, but if he fails then the punishment will be to eat lots of ice cream (which is painful to those who enjoy the heat of Hades). As Santa goes about his duties on Christmas, he tries to stay one step ahead of Pitch, who is busy setting traps and whispering in the ears of children he thinks he can use against Santa. This includes young Lupita (Lupita Quezadas), who yearns to receive a beautiful dolly on Christmas morning.

Directed by Rene Cardona, who also created the story with Adolfo Torres Portillo, this is sometimes cringeworthy stuff. In the first 5-10 minutes we see that Santa has a selection of children from all countries helping to make his toys, and those children are shown in the most racially stereotypical way possible. It does not bode well. But, thankfully, the film gets beyond that, as clumsy as it is, and manages to become mildly entertaining, if still very simplistic and thoughtlessly put together (Santa has Merlin on hand to help him out, for example, and let's not mention his creepy reindeer).

Moreno is perfectly fine in the role of Santa, he fills out the suit and says "ho ho ho" a lot, and everyone else does what is asked of them, with Aguirre jumping around in frustration or rubbing his hands in glee, depending on how his scheming is going. The child actors aren't particularly great, but Quezadas is sweet enough as the little girl wanting a dolly that her parents can't afford to get her.

It's easy to point and laugh at this movie, and it's certainly more of a curio piece than something that you would seek out to watch for any cinematic value, but it's also no worse than hundreds of other confections that use the magic that infuses Christmas as a main plot point.



Friday, 27 December 2013

Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus (2004)

Steve Guttenberg stars as the son of Santa in this movie, all about his quest to find love before he settles into the role that he's destined for. He is given a list of potential names to try and find a connection with, but doesn't find himself warming to any of them. Instead, he ends up enjoying the company of a woman (Beth, played by Crystal Bernard) who works in the advertising industry. The two, initially, seem to have different sets of values, but viewers won't be surprised to see how things eventually turn out.

I realise that some people may have made up their minds about this movie based on the first three words of this review, but it's worth remembering that a) Steve Guttenberg headlined some great movies and b) expectations should always be kept low when about to view any festive TV movies. So let's move past that and look at what else the film has to offer.

Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus is the usual mix of sweetness, simple lessons about the values that people should hold dear, and a sprinkling of magic. Guttenberg and Bernard are both fine in the lead roles, working nicely together and doing their best to help distract viewers from the slightly hasty and clumsy plotline unfolding. Dominic Scott Kay plays the son of Bernard's character, and does well, and Armin Shimerman is a lot of fun as Ernest, the assistant to the Claus family, doing his best to ensure that Claus Jr. is ready to step into the boots of Claus Sr.

The script, by Pamela Wallace, is standard TV movie stuff. It's inoffensive and light on laughs, but it wanders along from A to B in a perfectly serviceable manner. Harvey Frost directs with competence, and a quick glance at his filmography shows that he's also directed at least four other Christmas movies, so the guy seems to have found his niche.

This isn't a film that you'll look forward to seeing in the viewing schedules, but it's a perfectly acceptable bit of fun at Christmas. It may be distinctly average, but even that can be a pleasant surprise in the minefield of Christmas TV movies.



Thursday, 26 December 2013

Christmas Angel (2012)

When I saw the opening credits of Christmas Angel my heart sank. It's a film directed by Brian Herzlinger. If you're unfamiliar with that name then you were lucky enough to avoid the My Date With Drew drama on IMDb a number of years ago, in which Herzlinger spectacularly failed to realise the difference between enjoyable, friendly self-promotion on a chat forum and having to use hyperbole, lies and petty insults to stand your ground on a movie that few people had heard of at the time, let alone formed any opinion on. My Date With Drew was bad, but it wasn't THAT bad. If he'd gone about things in a different way then he may have received some grudging compliments. But he didn't. I only hope, for all concerned, that he's learned his lessons and moved on. Because nobody needs to sail through THAT shitstorm twice in one lifetime.

So let's get to this film. And let me say right now that I quite enjoyed it. I didn't love it - it's one of the many Christmassy TV movies that always reminds viewers that it's a Christmassy TV movie - but it was harmless enough, and featured a few good lead performances helping things along. Heck, the story was almost just the right level of sweetness to make you care without making you vomit. Almost.

The plot concerns a young girl (Olivia, played by Izabela Vidovic) who decides to investigate further when a number of wishes, made by her fellow classmates, are fulfilled. Olivia wants a husband for her mother (played by Teri Polo), a situation that looks a bit more likely when Nathan Davis (Kevin Sorbo) comes into their life. But Nathan isn't the man that Olivia wanted for her mother. Can she make her own wish come true? Perhaps the old woman (Della Reese) living nearby can help.

The script here is perfectly acceptable for a Christmas confection, and the performances from all involved are pretty good. Vidovic often veers over from cute territory to smug, but I guess most people won't be as bothered as I was by that balancing act. Polo and Sorbo do well, with the former especially likable and the latter doing a good "is he or isn't he a grinch?" routine. Reese is a lot of fun as the woman who may be holding one or two secrets, and Tamera Mowry-Hously and Jaiden Kaine help to liven things up, playing friends of the character played by Polo, a couple not averse to some minor meddling if it sees their friend happy.

There's nothing here that's great, but it could be good, if not for one main aspect. Yes, you may have guessed it, the direction. A lot of it is competent enough (I mean, this isn't exactly Gravity that we're watching), but then there are moments when the camerawork/framing is so clumsy that it takes you out of the movie, and you need to stay immersed in a light piece of work like this. Despite what he may think if he ever reads this, and I know Herzlinger certainly used to keep a close eye on reviews of his work, this is not me looking for an excuse to bash him. I'm not saying that his work on the film is inept, but there are certainly times when it's lacking, even for a TV movie.

All in all, Christmas Angel evens out to be a pretty average, ultimately quite enjoyable, story to watch during the Yuletide season.



Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Hogfather (2006)

Based on a book by the prolific, and fantastic, Terry Pratchett, Hogfather is very much a Christmas movie in all but name. You see, it takes place in the fantasy universe created by Pratchett, on a main planet named Discworld, and during the holiday of Hogswatch (which is equivalent to our own Christmas, with gifts being delivered by a fat man who squeezes down chimneys - the Hogfather of the title). But strange things are afoot on this Hogswatch. There's a cunning assassin (Teatime, not pronounced how it is spelt, played by Marc Warren) who wants to stop children believing in the Hogfather, in order to set off a chain of events that he thinks may even stop the sun rising. Because belief is a powerful thing. Death (voiced by Ian Richardson), and his assistant (Albert, played by David Jason), does what he can to keep the belief alive, delivering gifts and essentially becoming the Hogfather for a night, but his actions alone may not be enough. Fortunately, he may receive some help from his half-human granddaughter, Susan (Michelle Dockery), and a bunch of wizards (led by Mustrum Ridcully, played by Joss Ackland). As the night plays out, some may die, while others may pop into existence for the very first time. Because belief IS a powerful thing.

Directed, and adapted from the source material, by Vadim Jean (who also then helmed The Colour Of Magic), Hogfather is perhaps a slice of festive entertainment enjoyed best by those not as familiar with the works of Pratchett. The introduction sets things up quickly and easily enough, before going on to develop the story in a way that allows viewers to play catch up. Of course, those familiar with Discworld will find more little details to enjoy, but I find that every adaptation of Pratchett's work suffers, simply by being unable to translate the many little gags and footnotes into anything cinematic. The same problem, unsurprisingly, to arise when film-makers try to mine the equally rich imagination of Douglas Adams.

Hogfather, with its more familiar holiday setting (as already mentioned, this is a Christmas movie in all but name) fares better than most. The mix of great characters and fun special effects (both practical and computer-generated, all suited to the tone of the material) helps, the script provides some laughs once it gets into the second half, and the cast are all pretty great in their mix of quirky roles. It's worth noting here that this was created as a two-part TV movie, and the second half is certainly more consistently entertaining than the first half.

Ian Richardson may provide the voice only, but he gets to portray one of the most beloved characters in the Discworld universe. As surprising as it may seem, Death is always good company, and this movie treats him as well as he deserves. David Jason, Michelle Dockery and Joss Ackland are all just fantastic in their roles, while Marc Warren is a lot of fun, but stuck with interpreting one of the stranger characters onscreen (in terms of mannerisms and speech). Support comes from a talented bunch, including Nigel Planer, Tony Robinson, Craig Conway, David Warner, Stephen Marcus, Sinead Matthews and many more, with nary one poorly delivered line between them.

Different from almost anything else you could choose to watch in December, Hogfather hits all of the required notes, but gives everything a fun twist. And it has Death in a "Santa suit", so what more do you need?



Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A Cadaver Christmas (2011)

It took three people to write A Cadaver Christmas and you should know what to expect when you see that two of those three co-writers also bag two lead roles, with the third scribe also taking on the directing duties. Yes, A Cadaver Christmas may not be the worst independent, zombie-related, horror-comedy set at Christmas time, but it has too many flaws to make it a truly enjoyable experience.

Daniel Rairdin-Hale is a man who walks into a bar covered in blood, and he has a story to tell that nobody will believe. It involves a crowd of walking undead and creative use of the tools that he uses in his janitorial position. While nobody quite believes what they're hearing, they all end up sticking together until they get to the bottom of whatever is going on. The motley crew includes the bartender (Hanlon-Smith Dorsey) and one of his loyal customers (Ben Hopkins), a police officer (Yosh Hayashi) and his twisted perp (Andrew Ryan) - with all of them about to have a memorable Christmas.

Mixing elements of Braindead and Feast, with a few other splatterific titles referenced along the way, A Cadaver Christmas tries hard for most of its runtime, but it becomes clear after the first few scenes that this is a slight film built around a few set-pieces that aren't as memorable as they were in the minds of the men writing the script (Rairdin-Hale, Dorsey and director Joe Zerull).

The performances are all almost okay. I wouldn't say that anyone is terrible, but that's only because I am a kind soul who doesn't like to lay in to people who seemed to be trying their best. Let's just say that none of the main cast members are at ease in front of the camera, with each performance containing at least a hint of awkwardness.

But we horror fans can forgive any level of acting onscreen if the gore and pacing keep us happy, right? Well, there are one or two good gore gags, but this film falls into the trap that has claimed so many others. Sequences that should run for a minute or two are, instead, stretched beyond breaking point, and so much of the material feels like filler that it starts to become boring.

It's not unwatchable, not by any means, but I'm still waiting to see that truly great Christmas zombie movie. Hell, at this point I will settle for a good one. A Cadaver Christmas is just average, at best.



Monday, 23 December 2013

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (1966)

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is a fun tale all about Santa (Alberto Rabagliati) doing his best to raise the rent money required to avoid eviction by the nasty Phineas T. Prune (Rossano Brazzi). He is helped in his quest by Mrs. Claus (Lydia Brazzi), of course, and a lawyer named Sam Whipple (Paul Tripp).

As the jaunty theme tune started up and some animated credits rolled, I had no idea what to expect from this little movie (a random Netflix choice). As soon as the movie properly began I started to wonder just what I was letting myself in for. It doesn't allow any time for viewers to acclimatise themselves to the fanciful, childish nature of the material, instead throwing them headfirst into a conversation between Santa and Mr. Whipple about the dire situation that may put an end to Christmas. This pays off, however, because there can then be more time devoted to the musical moments and the race-against-time plot.

The musical numbers are often a bit clumsy, but there's also fun to be had in their childish simplicity and playfulness. Intentionally or not, the film captures a number of elements that work well in terms of how young children think and play.

The acting isn't bad, but it's a film that suffers from some clumsy dubbing, like so many from this era. Rabagliati is a kindly Santa, Tripp is nice enough as Mr. Whipple, Lydia Brazzi is a sweet Mrs. Claus and Rossano Brazzi is enjoyably mean as Mr. Prune. Mischa Auer may seem a bit too stern and strange to be the elf foreman, but he's so quirky that his presence is an added bonus, and completely in line with the slightly off-kilter nature of the whole thing.

Brazzi, as well as playing the big baddie of the piece, also directed and wrote the script (based on a story by Tripp). Nicely mixing a few moments of model work and stop-motion animation with the live-action style that makes up the majority of the film, it feels very much as if anything necessary to get the story told was utilised.

The end result is an enjoyable Christmas flight of fancy that deserves to be better known.



Sunday, 22 December 2013

Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger! (2012)

I didn't really like Nativity! that much, so it really comes as no surprise that I am not a fan of Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger!

Debbie Isitt handles both the directing and writing duties, once again, and relies on some cute kids to carry the whole thing, once again. There were one or two moments that made me almost grin, I admit it, but most of this film was almost painful to endure.

Poor David Tennant plays two roles here. In one, the main one, he is the teacher - Mr. Peterson - taking over from Martin Freeman's character (Freeman at least had the sense not to return), while his other character is . . . . . . . his nasty twin brother. There's a national singing competition being held that Mr. Peterson ends up taking his new class along to, after the smallest amount of persuasion from the loony Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton returning to his role).

With Jason Watkins and Pam Ferris also returning, as well as many of the kids from the first movie, this is a film that wants to take viewers on a gentle trip through some familiar territory. That can work, and is often the way of sequels, but when it's not done well it just ends up feeling horribly lazy. Considering the lack of laughs, and lack of care taken with the slipshod plotting and characterisations here, that feeling of laziness just grows with each moment.

Tennant is someone I like, and his presence here helps to make this bearable, but he can't do much to improve what he's given. Wootton enjoys himself again, and occasionally forces viewers to smile, but the only consistently good comedy comes from Jessica Hynes, playing the celebrity hostess of the competition as a cross between Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins.

Utilising the same mix of scripted moments and improvisation as the first movie, this poor effort MAY please those who enjoy David Tennant, Marc Wootton, and/or cute kids being cheeky. But that's not guaranteed. It's more likely that by the time the end credits roll you will curse yourself for having wasted your time on it.



Saturday, 21 December 2013

Stalled (2013)

It's a zombie movie that takes place during a workplace Christmas party, so I'm counting it as a Christmas movie.

Considering that Christmas celebrates a figure we could acknowledge as a superstar zombie (although there's no mention of any craving for brains after the resurrection), it is perhaps surprising that there aren't more movies mixing the living dead with the tinsel-adorned festivities. Mind you, when we have films as bad as Silent Night, Zombie Night and Santa Claus Versus The Zombies, maybe we should just be thankful.

Stalled is nowhere near as bad as those movies just mentioned. It's actually an enjoyably different spin on the zombie movie, focusing on a man (credited as W.C, played by Dan Palmer) trapped in a toilet stall while zombies starts to pile up around him. There's a woman in a nearby stall talking him through a few ideas, but this is, essentially, a one-man movie for the most part.

Palmer also wrote the movie, which is directed by Christian James (the two men having worked together on a variety of movies since their feature debut, Freak Out - a flawed, but enjoyable, horror comedy). Unfortunately, I can't say that this movie shows any major improvement in their skills, other than some ingenuity in being able to take the slight premise and stretch it out for just over 80 minutes.

The acting is okay, if I'm being nice, but bear in mind that I AM being nice. The various zombie effects are pretty poor, but one or two gore gags provide some amusement, and the attempts to create some interesting backgrounds to the main characters are appreciated, if not entirely successful.

Basically, Stalled is a film with some good intentions, but not-so-good execution. It starts to stretch credibility within the first 10-15 minutes and then has nowhere else to go, leaving the film as inert and ultimately useless as W.C.

It's not as funny as it thinks it is, it's not as enjoyably gory as it could be, and it's not deserving of some of the praise that I've seen heaped upon it this year, in my opinion. It's a one-joke film, with that joke being almost enjoyable enough to make it worth a watch.


Stalled is currently streaming on US Netflix and also available to pre-order from Amazon at this link - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stalled-Blu-ray-Dan-Palmer/dp/B00GY4N1FM/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1387577223&sr=8-2&keywords=stalled

Friday, 20 December 2013

Crazy For Christmas (2005)

I guess it happens occasionally. Despite my optimism, I end up watching a lot of BAD TV movies every December. Some of them have good intentions, some of them don't (or, if they do, it's hard to figure them out). Crazy For Christmas is one of the rare good ones. I'll even admit to having a lump in my throat during the final few minutes, although that may be as much to do with me getting more emotional in my old age than any skilled film-making.

It's Christmas Eve and lone parent, and chauffeur, Shannon (Andrea Roth) is offered a driving job that may be inconvenient while she tries to prepare for the big day with her son (Jason Spevack), but it will pay well. She is asked to drive around Fred Nickells (Howard Hesseman), a rich, eccentric man who seems determined to give away lots and lots of money in attempt to spread some Christmas cheer. As the day unfolds, it soon becomes clear to Shannon that she wasn't just randomly picked for the job, but that doesn't help her to figure out just what Mr. Nickells is up to.

The script, by Michael A. Simpson and Rick Bitzelberger, many not seem up to much, but for a Christmas TV movie this is solid, enjoyable and intriguing, stuff. There are many moments that don't quite work, but that's usually more to do with the varied levels of the acting on display than the quality of the script. Believability is stretched to breaking point within the first 15-20 minutes, but this is a Christmas movie, so that's not surprising.

Roth is fine in the lead role, and Hesseman is also very good, with the both of them working well as they spark off one another. Daniel Fathers plays the one man who knows the most about Mr. Nickells, and remains very loyal to him, and Yannick Bisson is likable as Peter, a news reporter who gets wind of the story and is tasked with making it into a main headline.

Director Eleanor Lindo deserves some credit too, of course, as she takes the cast and the script and does just enough to keep this all a step or two above the usual level of quality seen in such Christmas fare. It's a film that I'd watch again, and I tentatively encourage people to check it out during the holidays.



Thursday, 19 December 2013

Santa Claus Versus The Zombies (2010)

Written and directed by George Bonilla, who obviously managed to raise a budget of about $500, Santa Claus Versus The Zombies is awful. It's the kind of film that makes me hate the fact that I have to make an effort to describe the plot and name some of the people involved while writing up a full review.

Or I could just tell you that this film stars a bunch of amateurs with little to no talent (sorry to tar everyone with the same brush but nobody here is going to be shortlisted for any major awards in the next few years), including Billy W. Blackwell as a Santa Claus, Cassidy Rae Owens, Alex Del Monacco and Claude Miles, and the plot is summed up in the title.

The movie alternates between scenes set in a besieged home and scenes set in a abandoned factory/warehouse military bunker/command centre. The people who are under attack from zombies in their home are hard to care about, while the military personnel bickering about the best way forward are even harder to care about, which leaves viewers with a movie that gives you nothing to be invested in.

There may well be some people who think I'm being too harsh. I support independent cinema, and I think it's important to keep taking chances with my many viewing choices, but just because a film is independently made by someone who has, fair play to them, managed to scrape together enough money for a budget, and a bunch of actors willing to work for either very cheap or completely free, doesn't make it something that I will be kind too, JUST because it got made. It's always better to be honest, however harsh that may seem.

This isn't the first feature from Bonilla, who actually has about ten movies listed on IMDb (with one being an anthology that he contributed to), so it's not even a case of someone making numerous mistakes as part of a steep learning curve. No. It seems that the man thinks that this sub-standard fare is actually acceptable to people who will watch anything. People like me.

It's not acceptable, and it's not enjoyable. Avoid it at all costs.



Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Abominable Christmas (2012)

Despite the fact that I've given this Christmas animation a low score, I can honestly say that I still think I've been quite generous. I can also honestly say that the few other comments I've seen on the film are even more generous. This piece of rubbish currently has a rating of 6/10 on IMDb, for goodness sake. People seem to forgive a lot when something is aimed at kids, but that's no excuse for the minimal effort put on display here.

The story revolved around two little snow creatures, Abby (Ariel Winter) and Adam (Nolan Gould). They are warned by their father, listed as Abominable Dad (Ray Liotta) to avoid humans, and to especially avoid being spotted by a scientist named Margaret Knowhow (Jane Lynch), so they play around for a while and end up being spotted, dashing off to hide in the house of Mr. Winterbottom (Emilio Estevez) and his son (Drake Bell) and daughter (Isabella Acres). Abominable Dad searches for his kids, while also trying to avoid the attention of a local dog catcher (Matthew Lillard).

The best thing I can say about Abominable Christmas is that it's brief. It runs for just over 40 minutes, which makes it slightly easier to bear. Being aimed at very young viewers, it has nothing complicated in the mix. In fact, most of the little lessons throughout the script, written by Michael and Samantha Shear, are just fine for little ones to learn.

The cast all do okay, but they're not exactly stretched in any of the roles.

Director Chad Van De Keere does the least amount possible, providing viewers with visuals that I can honestly say look worse than the Monsters, Inc. game that I used to play on the Playstation One. It makes for a frustrating experience. Yes, children may be more easily entertained, and may actually prefer the simpler designs, but I suspect that a fair few of them will be just as disappointed as any adults having to watch the thing.

It's unfair to expect Pixar levels of quality from every animated movie, but it's also unfair to fob viewers off with something that looks like it could have been made on a Commodore 64.



Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toymaker (1991)

It's crap.

There. End of the review. I'm done with this series, at last.

You want more? Some elaboration? Well, only if you promise not to burst out laughing while I describe the basic premise. Alright, you don't have to promise, but just try your best.

Young Derek (William Thorne) stops speaking right after he sees his mother's boyfriend killed by a Christmas toy that was delivered to their house. His mother (Jane Higginson) obviously wants her boy to get all better. Not realising that the death was caused by a toy, she takes him to the local toymaker (Joe Petto, played by Mickey Rooney . . . . . . . . . . Joe Petto . . . . . . . get it?) and tries to buy him a small piece of well-balanced mental health. That doesn't work as well as she'd hoped. Meanwhile, more people are killed by toys, but in such a way that the cause of death usually remains a mystery or is deemed an accident.

Using a movie clip from the previous movie to tenuously link it into the franchise (and there's also a fleeting appearance from Neith Hunter, playing Kim once again), this is a standalone Christmas horror movie that had the potential to be a lot of fun. Imagine the possibilities for nastiness in a story that involves someone deliberately creating killer toys? A yuletide Silver Shamrock. Unfortunately, the potential is never realised, thanks to a pervading sense of laziness, a lack of any decent gore (apart from one moment that features some eyeball trauma), and a move to focus, instead, on another main plot element that is so silly that it completely undoes the third act.

The acting is competent, I guess, from most people onscreen, although Rooney really goes over the top at every opportunity, and he's matched by the actor playing his son (Brian Bremer). Brian Yuzna and Martin Kitrosser wrote the script, with the latter also directing the silliness, and Screaming Mad George is on hand to provide some special effects, which is a great shame as his talents are just as wasted as the initial premise.

Like many other horror franchises, this is one that didn't have any reason to exist. It limped along after the first movie, and we can all just hope that this fifth movie remains the last of the sequels.



Monday, 16 December 2013

Twelve Trees Of Christmas (2013)

Twelve Trees Of Christmas is exactly what you expect from a Christmas TV movie. That's not to say that it's bad. If you don't want to watch something that's safe and sweet then you'll hate it, of course, but it's actually not a painful viewing experience if you've sat through as many Christmas-centric movies as I have.

Lindy Booth plays a young woman who wants to save the library that she works in. The man responsible for it being due to close (Robin Dunne) initially thinks that she is just out to save her job, but it soon becomes clear that the library is more than just a place of employment. It's a hub for the community. A competition is organised, with people competing to design the best Christmas tree. Who will win, and will the endeavour actually change anything?

Directed by Michael DeCarlo, and written by Kevin Commins, this is flat, predictable and doesn't even build up to any hugely satisfying finale. Yet, somehow, it's just easy to watch and almost enjoy. I say almost because I can't, in all honesty, rate this as anything but completely average, but it wouldn't have taken much to push it up into the realm of the good. A sharper script and some better editing, because it never seems to live up, would have done it.

A better cast might have helped, but those onscreen don't do too bad. Okay, I have to admit that Lindy Booth isn't the strongest female lead, but I like her well enough. Dunne is enjoyable, and it's good to watch the two main characters butt heads without Dunne being painted as a big meanie from start to finish. In fact, his character comes over as quite a nice guy who has made a bad decision that he felt was necessary. Shauna MacDonald lends some nice support, and Melanie Brown plays a ruthless designer enlisted by Dunne to design HIS entry for the competition. Uneven accent aside, Brown is amusing enough. And Casper Van Dien may only be in the film for about a minute, but I like him enough to still mention him in this review. So there.

If you don't like any of the cast, or the title, or Christmas movies, in general, then just give this one a miss. But if you're wasting some time with yuletide viewings at this time of year, this isn't the worst that you could choose.



Sunday, 15 December 2013

Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990)

AKA Bugs.

Breaking away from the elements that were used ever so loosely to connect the first three movies in this franchise, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation takes place at Christmas, and that's all that is needed to install this as part of the franchise. Well, they do show a clip of the previous movie on a TV set at one point, but that's it.

A few people came together to create the bonkers story, but the script is credited to Woody Keith, so he's the man to ultimately blame for something so shambolic that also manages to remain so uninteresting.

Neith Hunter plays Kim, a woman who starts to investigate a mysterious death in her local area. It seems that some woman fell from a rooftop and spontaneously combusted. Clint Howard was in the vicinity, so horror fans will already know that this was, ummmmmm, no . . . . . . . ordinary . . . case of spontaneous combustion. Kim meets a friendly woman named Fima (Maud Adams) and soon ends up getting mixed up in something quite sinister. Fima and her friends want Kim, and their reasons for having her in their company aren't selfless ones.

Director Brian Yuzna, someone who creates schlock that I usually enjoy, hits a bit of a low point here. It's not the worst thing that I've seen him put his name to (the sequel, The Toymaker, is the worst), but it's close. There are some aspects to the movie that horror fans will enjoy, including one or two decent special effects from Screaming Mad George, and a cameo role for Reggie Bannister, but not enough to even class it as an average time-waster.

Hunter isn't terrible in the lead role, but she's far from the best, and she's not helped one bit by the lazy, messy script. Adams is a pleasure to watch, but she's just not used effectively for most of the film. And then there's Tommy Hinkley, playing a character named Hank who has a relationship with Kim, but spends most of his screentime simply doing whatever it takes to make the leading lady more resolved to investigate the mystery and take a number of risks. Howard does his oft-used crazy schtick, and does it well enough, I suppose, while Reggie Bannister is simply there, seemingly, to allow his name to appear in the credits as a bonus to horror fans.

You can, if you wish, watch all of the Silent Night, Deadly Night movies without feeling TOO much pain. But they're not really worth the effort. If determined to watch them all, however, then take solace in the fact that none of the other movies are as bad as that second film. This film may not be good, but it's still a step or two up from the nadir of the series.



Saturday, 14 December 2013

Nativity! (2009)

Martin Freeman is Scrooge. Okay, he's not Scrooge, but he plays someone who gets very grumpy around Christmas time. Which, in simple terms, equates to him being Scrooge. Or, at the very least, A Scrooge. He's also a teacher, ordered by the headmistress (Pam Ferris) to organise the upcoming nativity play. While being grumpy, putting up with a juvenile assistant (Marc Wootton), and generally wishing that he could be left in peace until the festive season was over, he also lies to someone about the fact that his nativity play is going to be viewed by some bigwigs from Hollywood, brought over especially by his ex-girlfriend (Ashley Jensen). This lie, of course, gets out and about, and it grows and grows until there looks to be no good way to resolve the situation.

Written and directed by Debbie Isitt (with plenty of room for improvisation), Nativity! is a film full of some easy laughs, but it is also too busy trying to make viewers feel moved with a lot of clumsy, emotional content shoehorned into almost every sequence. We can't just laugh at Freeman being grouchy to little kids, or Wootton being amusingly childish, oh noooo. We have to remember that Freeman is grouchy because of the emotional damage that he experienced some years ago, and we have to remember that Wootton does make the kids laugh, but people in charge of little ones should also remember their responsibilities.

And as for the troublesome kids? Let's not forget that they may already have their own issues, be it a need for some more attention, a blustery front to cover up insecurities, or a turbulent home life.

The cast is at least full of familiar faces, all doing decent enough work. Alongside Freeman, Ferris, Wootton and Jensen there is Jason Watkins, Alan Carr and even small roles for John Sessions and Ricky Tomlinson. And then there are those kids. While they may not be the best bunch of youngsters to have graced movie screens, they're a likable bunch of rogues and cutie-pies, often raising a smile just by looking cheekily at the camera.

While it may be a bit too sweet and cloying for many, myself included, there are still a few decent moments sprinkled throughout Nativity! And, anyway, Christmas is the time for the sweet and cloying, so you may find it worth a watch while the decorations are hanging up and you just want some undemanding entertainment.



Friday, 13 December 2013

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989)

It turns out that Ricky Caldwell, the killer in Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 isn't dead. Nope, he's just been in a coma for some time, allowing him to change into Bill Moseley (taking over the role from Eric Freeman) and establish a psychic connection with a blind girl named Laura (Samantha Scully). Laura is about to head to her grandmother's place for the holidays (with her brother, played by Eric DaRe, and his girlfriend, played by Laura Harring), which also seems to be the cue for Ricky to get up and start killing people again. And we all know who he's aiming for.

Directed by Monte Hellman, this is laughable stuff from start to finish. The script, by Carlos Laszlo, makes no effort to shoehorn any logic into the proceedings, which means that everything simply develops from the ridiculous into the more ridiculous.

Whether it's the fact that this killer moves even slower than any other onscreen killer that I can think of, the whole cast of characters being so hard to care for, or even the scene when someone stops to give a lift to a man hitch-hiking, despite the fact that his brain is visible through the liquid-filled jar contraption sitting at the top of his skull . . . . . . . this film provides plenty of unintentional (?) laughs.

Moseley is given nothing to do, besides shuffle around very slowly and kill people occasionally. Scully is required to act blind and throw out sneering comments every other minute, which she does. Eric DaRe is fine, but I was much happier with any scene that featured Laura Harring (billed here as Laura Herring), simply because I have a big crush on her. Robert Culp is a cop trying to get to Caldwell before he kills again, and Richard Beymer is the doctor who may have accidentally created the link between the killer and his target.

Not quite as bad as the movie that preceded it, but it comes close. Thankfully, if you watch it in the right frame of mind then you will find plenty to enjoy. Just not in the way that the creators intended.



Thursday, 12 December 2013

Snowmageddon (2011)

What a ridiculous title. What a ridiculous premise. What a ridiculous movie. All of these things are true, but it's also true that Snowmageddon is surprisingly entertaining. Yes, I'm putting that opinion out there right away. Snowmageddon suffers from a budget that can't match what it tries to show onscreen, but it manages to remain fun from beginning to end.

Let me get the plot out of the way quickly before you start laughing too hard. A family hear a knock at the door and find a gift left there. Nobody is around, just the box. Inside the box is a snowglobe. It's not just any snowglobe, however, this is a magical snowglobe. Whenever it is allowed to run it causes a disaster in the surrounding area. Of course, this isn't a conclusion that the characters immediately reach, but it's not long until the strange truth becomes apparent to young Rudy (Dylan Matzke). It then becomes a race against time to figure out how to stop the snowglobe from causing further destruction.

Laura Harris and David Cubitt are the parents who end up battling some extreme weather while trying to protect their loved ones and find a way to safely resolve things, Matzke is their young son, and Magda Apanowicz plays their daughter. Jeffrey Ballard plays a snowboarder who is also caught up in the midst of this bad situation. While nobody onscreen is great, it has to be said that they all do a pretty good job, especially considering how preposterous the central premise is (although Christmas is a time for magic, be it light or dark).

The script by Rudy Thauberger is in line with other low-budget disaster movies, which means that it's pretty weak. But, like the acting, it's a bit better than other work within the same range. Director Sheldon Wilson keeps things moving along nicely enough, and uses the varied CGI in a way that lets him visualise every idea in the script without highlighting all of its flaws for too long. That may not sound like much, and there's still enough on show to point and laugh at, but there's enough restraint shown, and just enough small character moments, to keep the film consistently watchable.

I'm sure that, as is often the case, many people will roll their eyes and just laugh at my opinion here. I liked Snowmageddon. I almost liked it a lot. Believe me, I'm just as surprised as you are by that statement. But I'll stand by it.



Wednesday, 11 December 2013

All Is Bright (2013)

Recently paroled ex-con, Dennis (Paul Giamatti), is so desperate for work that he ends up forcing himself upon his friend, Rene (Paul Rudd). Actually, Rene isn't quite the friend that he once was, considering the fact that he plans to marry Therese (Amy Landecker), the former partner of Dennis. Dennis and Rene travel to New York to sell Christmas trees, and it doesn't take long for things to get tense between them. Dennis just can't seem to let go of the past, despite his insistence that he wants to, while Rene doesn't help the situation with his far-too-laidback manner and inability to think of the best ways to make the business profitable. But things start to look up when Olga (Sally Hawkins) comes along to buy a tree, and ends up befriending Dennis.

This is a strange, strange movie, mainly due to the setting. Dennis and Rene are two men who live in a French Canadian area, but that isn't something that factors into the movie enough to really warrant its inclusion. I'm not saying that you can't have people from French Canadian territories making a trip to New York to sell Christmas trees as the core of your movie, but it just seems a bit unnecessary, when the film feels, in all other respects, like a film that could have been made about characters from anywhere. Okay, they may be selling a better quality of tree (I guess, I'm no expert on tree types) and there are a few moments when language proves to be an extra obstacle/irritant, but that's it. I'll admit it, during the first 20 minutes or so, I assumed that this was a clumsy remake of a superior film.

Giamatti and Rudd both do well together, with the former being the best thing in the movie, using his standard hangdog expression to great effect. Landecker isn't onscreen for all that long, despite her character being most important in the tension that's created, but she does well enough. Hawkins is a lot of fun as Olga, playing the quirky female who enters the life of the lead character without it feeling just like every other quirky female role to have popped up in a lot of independent dramas in recent years.

Director Phil Morrison doesn't really do much at all, or so it seems. Of course, I might have been offering him some praise if he'd deliberately kept everything low-key and natural, deciding on that as the best way to deal with Melissa James Gibson's script, but that's not how everything is. It becomes clear, at times, that the movie is trying to blend a grittiness with that magical, Christmas-time feeling, but it doesn't work. The horrible, distracting, score by Graham Reynolds is just one of many mis-steps as the movie plods along from start to finish. To list all of the others would take too long. A LOT of the problems come from the script, but Morrison certainly doesn't do anything to help.

If it wasn't for Giamatti, Rudd and Hawkins then I wouldn't recommend this to anyone. Their performances make it tolerable, while everything else in the movie conspires to get viewers to give up long before the end.



Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Desperately Seeking Santa (2011)

Laura Vandervoot plays Jennifer, a young and ambitious career woman who is put in charge of the Christmas promotion in the shopping mall that she works for. This year differs from other years, the need for sales is more important, and Jennifer needs to come up with a GREAT idea to get those tills a-ringing. She decides to create a competition to find a sexy Santa, which puts her in close proximity to David Morretti (Nick Zano). David has his own reasons for entering the competition. He'll do what he has to do, but he'll keep a chip on his shoulder while doing it. Jennifer doesn't like David, but all of the women seem to love him. And as the movie unfolds, Jennifer starts to warm to the man that she initially disliked so much.

This would be standard rom-com stuff and standard Christmas movie fare if it wasn't quite so bland and flat and unengaging. Writer Michael J. Murray doesn't take any care with the characters or plot developments, and director Craig Pryce takes the same approach with the direction. There's nothing here that you can't predict within the first few scenes, but there's an extra degree of laziness to it all. Characters change and transform just in time for the finale with very little genuine motivation.

Vandervoot is okay in her role, despite the fact that she's given very little to work with. Her character is the standard Christmas meanie who changes as the film unfolds, although in a slightly different way from other Christmas meanies (what with her actually enjoying Christmas). She's easy enough to like, which makes it more jarring during the "boo, hiss" moments in the first half of the movie. Zano is also okay in his role, he's handsome enough and too-good-to-be-true in a way that will make many a woman swoon for him. There are some decent supporting turns, with Natalie Krill being good fun as the lovestruck Brittany, but this is all about the two leads, with others just popping up occasionally to cause friction and/or drive the plot forward.

I don't know why I dislike this more than recent Christmas movies I have watched, but it just felt like everyone involved . . . . . . . . . . . wasn't trying very hard. That kind of laziness just covers any film like an old, unwashed cloak made of itchy wool.


Another one not available on DVD at the moment, so have a look at this selection - http://www.amazon.com/Holiday-Romance-Collection-Movie-Pack/dp/B00DNLZRLU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1386624754&sr=8-2&keywords=desperately+seeking+santa

Monday, 9 December 2013

Becoming Santa (2011)

People always used to tell me that if I worked in a factory that made chocolates I would soon get sick of eating the chocolates. I have a very sweet tooth, and argued that I would never tire of eating chocolate. I didn't realise when I was a young boy that this was just a variation on a well-worn piece of advice: "be careful what you wish for."

In Becoming Santa, Jack Sanderson wants to find some holiday spirit. He dies his beard and hair white, invests in a suit and sets out to become, yes, Santa. On his journey he attends a Santa School (run by the sweet, but clearly a bit bonkers, Susan Mesco), meets many other Santas and starts to realise just how important it is to keep this figure alive and pure in the eyes of the children who look up to him.

While it is at pains to show both the good and the bad of the figure of Santa Claus, and what he means to children and to those who are young at heart, Becoming Santa stumbles a couple of times, for two main reasons.

First of all, almost everyone involved equates Santa Claus with the spirit of Christmas. Even though I'm a happy, fully-fledged atheist I can see why some people might have a bit of a problem with that. Hey, I LOVE Santa, and I have encouraged a love of Santa in my kids over the years, but when discussing the spirit of Christmas I have never first gone to Santa as the embodiment of all that. I've not gone straight to the religious roots either. Instead, I simply think that the season, and its traditions, bring out the goodness in people who wish to engage with it. The spirit of Christmas, as cheesy as it sounds, is in each and every person who works to make it as magical as can be. Santa can embody that, of course, but it's more often the case nowadays that Santa is just the person that kids reach their hands out to for everything that they want. This is highlighted in a sequence that features the "Letters To Santa" program in New York. I thought it was wonderful that these letters were being dealt with, and that the kids would get a little reply from Santa, but it turns out that these letters are browsed by people who then try to get gifts for the kids. I'm sure this is greatly appreciated by the kids - especially one child who needed a wheelchair that the family just couldn't afford - but if parents can't afford to get their kids a gift from Santa then there are bigger problems that a new toy won't fix. The spirit of Christmas should be about helping with those problems.

The second big problem with Becoming Santa stems from the first problem, as it shows how people will spend any money on bizarre little moments to impress their kids (by the way, Santa should never use "the K word"). From a trip on The Polar Express (with Santa working voluntarily, I should add) to an actual visit to the house on Christmas Eve, Santa doesn't seem like such a special, magical figure when you know that he's being hired to pretend to care. With no offence to Santas who also have a real need to spread joy, I realise that this is often the case (hey, even Santa has to eat), but to watch it unfold is to chip away at that Christmas magic. True or not, it feels like time spent watching parents spoil their kids, and I always dislike spoilt children. A Christmas parade through Quincy, Massachusetts, on the other hand, feels like a job well done, so maybe that's just me bristling at something I shouldn't.

Despite these two big flaws, Becoming Santa works quite well. Jack Sanderson is an affable, wry character and there are many little moments that try to clarify the origin of Santa Claus, and his development in to the character we know and love today.

I think, by the time the end credits roll, this documentary will have reaffirmed your opinion of Christmas, whatever that may be. If you love the season then you will still love it, but if you hate it then this will give you at least a couple of reminders of just why that is. An enjoyable, if rather insubstantial, piece of work. Like many other Christmas treats.



Sunday, 8 December 2013

Snowglobe (2007)

Another Christmassy confection from the writers of both Santa Baby and Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe, this is a film that may not actually be that good, but it's a perfect time-filler in amongst the many other snow-filled flights of fancy occupying the TV schedules at this time of year.

Christina Milian plays Angela Moreno, a young woman who is a bit fed up of her overbearing family. They never seem to mind their own business, whether they're trying to set her up with a new fella (this time around in the shape of Josh Cooke) or just assuming that she's happy to work in the family business until the day she can take over from her mother (Lorraine Bracco). Angela actually just wants to enjoy a traditional Christmas, and she gets her chance when she receives a magical snowglobe, hence the title. She finds that she is able to enter the village inside the snowglobe, and starts to spend more and more of her time there, especially enjoying the company of cheery and sweet Doug (Matt Keeslar).

Directed by Ron Lagomarsino, and written by Garrett Frawley and Brian Turner, this is standard stuff indeed, but that's not to say that it's not unenjoyable. The simple premise is rough around the edges, and quite lazy at times, but it's also built around a decent core idea.

Milian isn't a great actress, but the film doesn't completely rest on her shoulders so that's not so bad. Cooke is decent enough, and Bracco is sorely underused (and, frankly, deserves better anyway), but Keeslar has a lot of fun as the man who views the world around him through child-like eyes. Kailin See, Christine Willes, Erin Karpluk, Jason Schombing and everyone else onscreen do . . . . . . . . . okay. Nobody stinks, at the very least.

There are some nice little touches here and there, especially in the artificial, twee design of the snowglobe village, but just not enough to raise this to something above average. Not to be too down on the girl, but with a better actress in the lead role this could have been fun. As it is, it's just a mild diversion that doesn't cause you any pain while it's on, even though it could have been much better.



Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Everyone knows the story of Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. He had a very shiny nose. This little stop-motion gem is yet another of the beloved Rankin/Bass productions that so many had the joy of growing up with. They remain as cute and rewatchable as ever, and I recommend all of them for children of all ages.

The story is narrated to viewers by Sam the Snowman (voiced by Burl Ives) and while things start off in very familiar territory - Rudolph is called names and not allowed to join in all the reindeer games - it soon moves on to something a bit different. Rudolph leaves his home, and it's not long until he meets up with an elf who wants to be a dentist and an adventurer looking for silver and gold. The three of them somehow end up on an island that is home to all of the misfit toys, toys that actually look to Rudolph and co. for a helping hand.

There's nothing more to say about this other than it's a Rankin/Bass Christmas outing, which is all that many people will need to hear before remembering it with affection, and with good reason. It's actually directed by Larry Roemer and written by Romeo Muller, based on a story by Robert May, but the identity stamped all over it is Rankin/Bass.

The character design and animation is adorable, even if it's also a bit rough around the edges at times. There are a few songs, none of them spectacular, but all enjoyable enough, plenty of references to the song that shares the title of the film, and moments of surreal joy that somehow balance out the potential excess sweetness with the imagination on display.

Clocking in at just under an hour, this isn't really a feature, but it's just long enough to keep kids entertained without having to throw in a lot of extra gags for every scene. By the time the end credits roll, hopefully, the little ones will have taken in a little lesson about how it's okay to be different. It's okay to be yourself. Meanwhile, older viewers have been able to rekindle some childhood memories or just soak up the simple pleasure of the experience.



Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Christmas Story 2 (2012)

I liked A Christmas Story when I FINALLY saw it. I liked it quite a bit. But I didn't love it. I hadn't grown up with it playing on a loop every day in December. It just wasn't quite as revered here in the UK, where we don't often have the wished-for white Christmas, and rarely view the season with such naivete and optimism. Whatever your views on the movie, however, there's one thing that we can all probably agree on. It didn't need a sequel. But now, 29 years later, it has one.

Braeden Lemasters plays Ralph Parker this time around, the young boy now an older, but not necessarily wiser, teenager. His father (played by Daniel Stern) still loves to save money wherever he can, and everything feels a bit different but also very much the same. Oh, and it's coming up to Christmas. This is standard sequel stuff.

Directed by Brian Levant, this actually doesn't stink as badly as it should, mainly due to the anecdotal nature of the material being a lot of fun, even if it isn't always as easy to identify with as the material used in the first movie (a clue that they'd already used the best stuff, so had no need to revisit the characters). Yes, it's completely unnecessary, but so are many sequels. The fact that Nat Mauldin, who wrote the script once again based on aspects of Jean Shepherd's book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash", keeps everything enjoyable is mainly due to the fact that it skips from one incident to the next before you can have time to get bored and/or angry at anything repeated from the first movie.

Stern is okay as the father, but he's not as good as Darren McGavin. He plays his character slightly over the top, providing a much simpler performance because he's easier to like, even while he's being the stern dad (no pun intended). Lemasters is also okay as Ralph, I guess, but he's a character defined by the hair and glasses more than anything else. Those remain in place, so that's half the battle won from the very beginning. Elsewhere, David W. Thompson and David Buehrle are good fun as Ralph's friends, Tiera Skovbye is the coveted Drucilla and Gerard Plunkett plays a car salesman who ends up being owed quite a bit of money from our young, central character.

There's a believability missing from this that the first movie had, but a Christmas movie that doesn't feel quite believable is hardly a rare thing nowadays. It doesn't matter as long as it's enjoyable, and there are times when A Christmas Story 2 is enjoyable. Is it anywhere close to being as good as the original movie? No. But it's an amusing enough diversion, which is more than can be said for some movies that dress up their mediocrity in tinsel and fairy lights.



Noel (2004)

I was hoping to like Noel. Why? It was a Christmas movie with a good cast, and it was directed by the fantastic Chazz Palminteri. I like Christmas movies, in case anyone somehow hadn't noticed that yet, and I like Chazz Palminteri. I also like Susan Sarandon, Paul Walker, Penelope Cruz, Robin Williams and Alan Arkin, all of whom star in the movie. Sadly, the film just isn't that good. It does for Christmas what the likes of Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve did for their respective occasions. Which is to drain it of all magic and instead fill it up with cheap manipulation and saccharin sweetness.

What's the storyline? It's a selection of criss-crossing story strands. Susan Sarandon plays a lonely woman who devotes most of her attention to her hospitalised mother. She eventually meets a man (Robin Williams) who seems to know just where she is at in her life at that exact moment. She also meets a young woman (Penelope Cruz) who is being driven away from her boyfriend (a cop, played by Paul Walker), due to his explosive temper. Walker, while trying to win back the woman he loves, is approached by Alan Arkin, playing a man who seems to see the reincarnation of his ex-wife in the young man. Oh, and there's also a man (Marcus Thomas) who wants to spend the evening in hospital, because his happiest memory was when he was hospitalised, as a young boy, and got to enjoy the Christmas party thrown for the patients.

Written by David Hubbard, Noel features a handful of good performances that are wasted in a pile of schmaltz. Schmaltz is a hard thing to avoid in any Christmas movie, but this one is especially bad. The musical cues, the journeys of self-discovery, the warm, Christmassy glow suffusing every scene, it all works to remind you that you must feel the joy of the holiday season. You must sense the magic, despite all of it being very basic stuff executed with very little style.

Palminteri, who also gives himself a fleeting cameo, doesn't direct with any confidence. Thankfully, he gains a few bonus points by assembling a good cast, but that's about the only thing that the movie has going for it. Sarandon, Walker, Arkin and Cruz are all very good, Thomas is okay, although he just has to keep repeating the same idea over and over again, and Robin Williams does the quietly contemplative act he's been doing in his serious roles for years now (the regret, the wry grin, the soft and quiet manner).

It's a shame that I've ended up rating this even lower than many of the TV movies created at this time of year, but this one had the chance to be much better. It feels more like a wasted opportunity, which isn't the feeling I want from my Christmas movies as the end credits roll.



Wednesday, 4 December 2013

All I Want For Christmas (1991)

While it's obviously intended to be a fun, diverting bit of family entertainment with a sprinkling of magic that helps everyone keep a smile on their face while the end credits roll, All I Want For Christmas instead ends up being one of the more annoying movies to hang such a slight premise on the sagging branches of a small, tired, skinny Christmas tree.

The plot concerns two annoying children (played by Ethan Randall, better known nowadays by the name Ethan Embry, and Thora Birch) who just want their parents to get back together. The girl played by Birch, the younger of the two children, decides to ask Santa (Leslie Nielsen), but her brother knows that it's up to them to make their Christmas wish come true. And so they set a plan in motion, a plan that they hope will reunite their parents and allow them all to live happily ever after. It involves rodents, deceit and ditching their mother's new boyfriend (played by Kevin Nealon).

This is a tough one to watch, mainly because Randall and Birch are two of the most horribly smug children to appear onscreen. Birch has the excuse of being young and precocious, when this was made, but Randall just seems to go out of his way to be irritating while not doing very much at all. The fact that the movie also features the most horrendous, and slightly disturbing, rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is the icing on the cake.

Director Robert Lieberman makes no attempt to cover up the flaws in the script, by Robert Lieberman and Thom Eberhardt, and subsequently leaves everyone out to dry as the movie slogs towards a predictable, flat finale (that COULD have been enjoyable and/or moving if the leads had been slightly likable).

Leslie Nielsen has fun with his small amount of screentime, Nealon is amusingly easy to want out of the picture, and Harley Jane Kozak and Jamey Sheridan are okay as the separated parents that the kids want back together, but it's poor Lauren Bacall who suffers the greatest indignity, taking part in that aforementioned musical moment alongside Birch while being sorely underused throughout the rest of the movie. Andrea Martin doesn't do too badly, as a potential love interest named Olivia, but it's far too difficult to see why she would be attracted to Randall's smug demeanour.

Not one that I'd recommend, unless you enjoy being annoyed to the point of distraction by lead characters.



Tuesday, 3 December 2013

12 Dates Of Christmas (2011)

Christmas is the time of the TV movie, as many people will know (both from the schedules and also from the reviews that appear every December here on my blog). 12 Dates Of Christmas is yet another one of the many that seem to be churned out year after year, and it's yet another one that doesn't stand out from the crowd.

Amy Smart has the lead role, an actress that many people like well enough, but someone I have always really disliked since watching her almost bring down The Butterfly Effect with her poor performance in a role that many, more talented, actresses would have done much more with. But I digress. In this confection she plays a young woman named Kate Stanton. It's Christmas Eve and Kate really wants happiness in her life. And what does every young woman in a TV movie need when searching for happiness? Yes, of course, a man. Because we all know that single people can never be truly happy. Especially single women. In fact, there was a memo sent around a few years ago to remind everyone that the very thought of a happy single woman is enough to shake the very pillars of the ABC programming department and bring the whole world to a point of fiery implosion. But I digress again, sorry. Anyway, Kate is a bit controlling and aloof, so when she is set up on a blind date with the lovely Miles (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) she spoils it all by dwelling on her ex, Jack (Benjamin Ayres). And then at midnight, she is taken back to a moment on Christmas Eve and giving the chance to spoil it all again. Which she does. And again. And again. Until she starts to think on the error of her ways and maybe change things for the better.

Yes, it's Groundhog Day at Christmas. Kinda like Christmas Do-Over. But that's okay, because wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff has been an important aspect of Christmas fantasy tales since the classic A Christmas Carol, so it's not as if Groundhog Day was the one that came along first. Good Dickens, no.

Writers Janet Brownell and Aaron Mendelsohn (adapting the story by Mendelsohn and Blake J. Harris) take the premise and do what you'd expect them to do with it. Kate at first tries to correct things in the way that SHE thinks is best, then she has a bit of fun, and then she struggles to find a way to end the repeating cycle. Director James Hayman gets the camera pointing and shooting the right way, with a standard swirly move to show the trip back in time whenever it gets to midnight. There's nothing spectacular here, and none of it is remotely believable, but it's perfectly fine TV movie stuff.

Smart certainly grows as the movie progresses, but it's hard to like her during the first half of the movie (which, I guess, is kind of the point). Gosselaar is a nice enough guy, I suppose, but so is Ayres, because this is all about the change needed in Smart. Jayne Eastwood stands out among the supporting players, portraying an elderly neighbour with a good heart.

Put someone, anyone, in the lead role instead of Smart and this could have, just, been a good bit of entertainment. As it stands, it's distinctly below average.


It's not even out on DVD, egads, so look at this selection, if you must - http://www.amazon.com/Holiday-Romance-Collection-Movie-Pack/dp/B00DNLZRLU/ref=pd_sim_mov_2

Monday, 2 December 2013

Saving Santa (2013)

Christmas movies are pretty easy to make, as are family movies. Well, that's what ABC and other channels, churning out numerous TV movies every year, would have you believe. And, in a way, they're right. Both require some kind of sweetness, a moral lesson to be learned (usually), and an environment for the main characters that is distinctly . . . . . . . . . . . movieland. The former also requires snow.

But making a GOOD Christmas and/or family movie, that's something different altogether.

Saving Santa is almost good, but it doesn't quite do enough to warrant any repeat viewings. It's the story of an elf named Bernard (voiced by Martin Freeman). Bernard likes to invent things, and always rushes to present his latest inventions to his peers, in the hopes of becoming more than just the elf responsible for clearing up the reindeer droppings. Unfortunately, there always seems to be some malfunction. This time around, the malfunction temporarily disables the cloaking of the North Pole base. It's not visible for long, but it's long enough for Neville Baddington (Tim Curry) to see it and make his move. He wants to get Santa and find out his secrets. He wants to know how he can make all of his deliveries in one night, so that he can use the same tactic to make his delivery company the fastest ever. The answer, as Santa shows Bernard during the calm before the storm, is time travel. Knowing the secret, Bernard decides to go back in time to stop everything going wrong. And that's when things start to get a bit complicated.

Although it's animated nicely enough, and the second half improves things greatly after a mediocre opening, there's just nothing here to make Saving Santa stand out. Freeman is fine in the lead vocal role, and Curry is great as the villain, but the support from Joan Collins, Ashley Tisdale and Tim Conway is as bland as the rest of the movie. Noel Clarke is fun, as the leader of a defence squad, but he's not in the movie for all that long, sadly.

The direction by Leon Joosen and Aaron Seelman is serviceable, I suppose, with the script by Ricky Roxburgh (based on a story by Tony Nottage) never rising too far above average. The time travel stuff starts to get more and more entertaining, and it's quite cleverly done, but the dialogue disappoints and none of the supporting characters, with the exception of reindeer Blitzen, make much of an impression.

And let's not mention the truly awful songs that punctuate proceedings every now and again. It's enough to make you want to stuff plum pudding in your ears. There are much worse movies to watch if you have undemanding children wanting to watch something new, but it's certainly worth trying to convince them that they should just rewatch the delightful Arthur Christmas instead.