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Christmas Wedding Runaway (2019 TV Movie)
Sweet, sisterly, slightly predictable, but humorous and a pretty wintry setting.
6 January 2020
This is an almost-ensemble holiday rom-com with one main heroine, her groom, her ex, and her sister rounding out the leads. Sara Mitich is luminous although her hair is almost frighteningly red in this role. There's gentle comedy and authentic emotion from the 4 leads as they grow through their individual arcs although Colt doesn't get much range as he's supposed to represent stable, unchanging love.

Mimi Kuzyk is a gem as the girls' grandmother. The bride's parents are transparently OTT - the kind that's entertaining on-screen but you'd have to murder IRL. The bit players are a nice collection of eccentrics and bewildered bystanders.

There's been some criticism that the lead actress isn't suited for the role but I think that's a deliberate choice by the director to play up the character's unsuitability for the city life and the marriage/family she is running away from (not a spoiler, as it's in the title). The character dresses more naturally and loses the artificial hairstyle once she's out of the city, and even moves differently as she becomes more true to her own desires.

(One caveat as a writer: if anyone dragged me out of an in-the-zone writing session after a period of blockage, I'd be flinging my coffee mug at them, not going meekly back to the kitchen to help with the baking or whatever.)

The plot omitted a few of the usual set-pieces like sleigh rides and ice-skating although they did fit in Christmas tree hunting, and still managed to become a nicely watchable story. I'll keep my eye out for the actresses playing both sisters, to see what they make of more demanding roles.
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New Year's Kiss (2019 TV Movie)
Takes a while to get to the heart of the story
6 January 2020
I've enjoyed Erin Karpluk and Robin Dunne in other things so took a chance on this despite the poor reviews. Not sorry I did. This isn't great television by any stretch but it was a pleasant way to pass 1.5 hours on a holiday evening.

The fatal flaws were mostly in the beginning, with uninspired dialogue, one-note secondary characters, and especially a serious lack of deeper motivations for the main characters. If either of them early expressed a dissatisfaction with their career paths, the first half would have had more heart and the shift of direction at the 2/3 mark wouldn't have come as such a surprise.

It's a light, easy tv movie with some food for thought and a cute twist at the end that doesn't have to do with the happy couple.
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A delightful train-wreck of a holiday rom-com
21 December 2019
This movie charmed me from the first by how thoroughly the lead actors threw themselves into their ditzy roles. It's not always easy to 'play shallow' with total conviction but they nailed it. Even the slimy agent was note-perfect in this one.

As a look into the appearance-is-everything world of social media influencers - people who are famous for the image they manufacture online - the plot is only too credible.

The personal emotional & psychological costs associated with the superficial glam are very much visible here: obsession with appearance, alienation from self & loved ones, inability to trust in love that sees beyond the surface.

To manage all that while still being screamingly funny is a feat indeed. So, not a brilliant movie but a hilarious cut above many holiday comedies.
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Holly Star (2018)
Bent little film that will resonate with 30-somethings
17 December 2019
...especially those whose first adult dreams have failed them.

Returning home as an adult is never easy. When you're a dedicated puppeteer whose last job has dried up, leaving you broke and alone, where else do you go? Then you find out your parents have left town for the holidays, making you responsible for your crazy grandma. The catastrophes pile on from there, abetted by a nutty best friend with a paintball fixation and a childhood sweetheart determined to save you from yourself.

There's a mystery, touches of personal history, some broad physical humour, and the usual triumph of seasonal joy to round off this surprisingly twisty script. The puppet sequences add a surreal quality.

Enjoy with a beverage.
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A Christmas Fury (2017 TV Movie)
Just as zany on second viewing
17 December 2019
I saw this when it was first released and found it even more compelling on second viewing.

The comedy is broad as the Atlantic Ocean, delivered by a cast whose faces and voices are familiar from the best Canadian TV comedy. The script blends regional humour with social commentary, taking us deep into dysfunctional family life. And only in Newfoundland could Christmas come with so many interwoven layers of chaos.

Your ears may take a bit to attune to the accents but it's a happily bizarre movie that well repays the initial effort.
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So pretty, so bland, so lacking in chemistry
14 December 2019
This movie should be a wonderful addition to the seasonal lineup.

The script is no worse than many. It has all the necessary elements: a handsom, driven businessman, a fit and pretty woman, incredible mountain scenery, enforced isolation, and a legal situation guaranteed to produce very real conflict.

Sadly, the actors were stiff, the dialogue trite, and the deep conflict at the heart of the story just flattened out under the combination of the two. These two actors simply aren't leading-light quality at this point in their careers.

Lesson all filmmakers should know from the time they pick up their first camera: if there are only two people in a the majority of scenes in a movie, they need to have very strong acting skills to carry the emotional arc through every moment, whether they're speaking, reacting, or just walking across a room.
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The Christmas Contract (2018 TV Movie)
A sweet story with heart beneath the surface plot
12 December 2019
This is a familiar setup for a holiday story: newly single woman takes home a ringer because her ex will be there with someone new. Warm-hearted family embraces the new man and swaps holiday traditions.

That's where the plot diverges from the usual: there's no heart-rending over deceiving loved ones, and the developing love interest is warm, believable, and well-paced. There's enough going on with the other characters and outside events that Our Heroine seems like a fully rounded woman, not simply a cut-out with a cute hairstyle and a vestigial career.

Our Heroine is positively luminous. She sizzles in this role, like a young Cybil Shepherd or Kathleen Turner, without once doing or saying an overtly sexy thing.

Of course there's the obligatory misunderstanding at the 3/4 mark, that you can see coming from way back. But the way it's resolved doesn't involve either of them doing anything cringe-worthy, and does evolve beautifully out of preceding events.

And I'd REALLY like to experience a Louisiana Christmas.
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Christmas Connection (2017 TV Movie)
A sweet blend of humour and longing
6 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
A story within a story, in a charming interweaving of the traditional holiday themes of family and love and memories of those no longer with us.

The actors have credible reasons for hanging out together; they deliver some intelligent and believable dialogue in pursuit of the historical story. Their interactions with each other and the girl are sweet - sometimes a bit OTT but then Sidney is a stewardess with the usual ever-ready customer service smile - and their romance is more credibly incremental than many holiday passions are.

This movie took some care with the small details, adding layers that too often are missed in the rush-job of filming a holiday movie over 2 weeks in September. Sidney wears her hair loose when she's off duty but in a very believable stewardess up-do when appropriate. She's on her way to Bali and doesn't have a magical expanding wardrobe to outfit her for the colder weather. The angel gift is one of several small moments of connection between Sidney and Leah, not forced to carry the whole weight of the relationship. The historical story unfolds in small increments rather than grand revelations, and its conclusion isn't the impetus for the happy ending, which has already happened quietly when Sidney made her decision off-screen.

Further, I really appreciate that Sidney doesn't over-water the scenery in her angst about any of her issues: saying Arrivaderci to Leah the first time, being an orphan who spends Christmas in hotels, leaving the family who have taken her under their wing for the holidays. Tearing-up and other emoting may play better with the reality-TV generation but those of us who have had all the overblown dramatics we can handle in real life only appreciate the quiet thoughtfulness of these actors and this script more.

Perhaps it's the understated easing into relationships that bothers some viewers, or the lack of a trumped-up misunderstanding that's customary at the 3/4 mark, which would be solved if the romantic leads would stop for thirty seconds to let the other finish a sentence. This is a mature relationship developing, taking into account the realities of existing children and family issues.

A movie with a lot of heart and some nice subtle touches.
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A sassy holiday update on the timeless classic story
3 December 2019
Don't skip this on account of the low average. Some people hate it, true, but it's no worse than many of the Cinderella remakes of the past 20 years and it's definitely better than some.

In this version, the Cinderella character has the requisite evil stepmother & stepsisters, but she's also got a career plan that keeps her working toward her own goals. Also, she gives the 'handsome prince' a no-nonsense privilege-check when he asks her to do something that might cost her job. How often does a Cinderella character get to call out a rich boy without either agonizing over it or getting punished for it?

The musical numbers aren't particularly riveting although the comic turns of dancing elves are quite enjoyable.

Definitely watchable with the fam.
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Holiday Rush (2019)
Feel-good Christmas movie about family pulling together
29 November 2019
This is another in a long-overdue set of movies showing black middle class families dealing in their own ways with issues of career setbacks and spoiled kids; finding holiday spirit and togetherness through adversity. It's a bit like a Tim Allen movie in visually comedic moments. From a story-arc angle, it's a little bit fractured during the first half, with too much weight on the main character and not quite enough development of the strong supporting characters, but that's better balanced in the second half for a really nice and heartwarming Christmas morning that's all the funnier for the wardrobe choices.
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South of Wawa (1991)
When a day could go on forever
24 November 2019
This modern vignette of small-town coming-of-age will be familiar to anyone who came to adulthood outside a major city.

We all know the cliques that became entrenched by junior high, and how they just don't interact beyond the most superficial way. Being favourably noticed by someone outside your assigned strata is as hopeless a dream as becoming an astronaut without going through training, but that doesn't stop these young people from hoping, yearning, and ultimately breaking past the longstanding boundaries to say what they mean to the people they care about, and in the process become more firmly their unique selves.

This is an understated, snowy movie with its share of mildly eccentric characters and totally understandable problems. Like a much older small-town movie, South of Wawa (1991), it tugs at a few heartstrings and tickles the odd funny bone on its way to a blowout Christmas Eve party that is sure to get some Waffle House employees in big trouble by Boxing Day.
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South of Wawa (1991)
A quirky little film recognizable to anyone who ever lived in a small town
24 November 2019
This is a pleasant little ensemble piece populated by the mildly eccentric individuals who amble the streets of small towns everywhere. It's not only relevant for Canadians; there are plenty of Michiganders and Iowans who will recognize these characters too.

The plot is a slow peeling back of secrets both within and without the characters. There's humour and tragedy, lust and hesitant steps toward love, and some seriously dysfunctional relationships that may well have you thinking 'WTAF' for years afterward.

Also, the isolation of that stretch of Northern Ontario around Wawa (yes, a real town) is almost a character by itself. You could see it existing in a pocket dimension even now, while the rest of the world has moved on.
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Dolly Parton's Heartstrings: Jolene (2019)
Season 1, Episode 1
About women's complex friendships and pitfalls
24 November 2019
Sometimes it pays to step outside your expectation zone on Netflix. I'd normally never bother with a show about a country music star even though I enjoyed Dolly Parton years ago in '9 to 5' with Lily Tomlin etc.

But Dolly's new Netflix show - at least this first episode, 'Jolene' - is a deceptively simple story that's really about women supporting women, and how quickly women's friendships can get complicated by feelings un-shared and words unspoken - or spoken in a moment of anger or insecurity.

Women can be each other's best friends, and our own worst enemies, but seldom our own best friends. The script did a tidy job of exposing the social minefields too many women walk through daily, as contrasted with the power of even one female mentor's unqualified support. Dolly gave a straight-up performance as an older woman sharing her life experience without pressure on a younger one to make her own way.

This show also gives a worthy role to veteran actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley (whose eternal mix of vulnerability & strength I've enjoyed since first seeing her in 'The 10th Kingdom) and showcases the rise of a relative newcomer, Julianne Hough, from an uncredited schoolgirl in 'Harry Potter' to a luminous stage musician and screen personality in her own right.

It's a lovely, women-centric show with good music, even though it's not normally my kind of music and the women characters aren't normally my kind of women.
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A charming children's tale of love and magic and circuses
8 December 2018
This film is a sweet fantasy, along the lines of 'The Never-ending Story' with a side of any film about running away to join the circus. It's framed by a grandmother reading 'The Little Mermaid' to her granddaughters at bedtime, and seguing from there - like Danielle de Barbarac does in 'Ever After' - into a story of family history. In between is a Cirque des Freaks run by an evil magician.

The story is sound English family fare, led by English actors but set in early 19th c USA, which seems to have confused and distressed some commenters. The acting is mostly competent rather than brilliant although the chief villain looked too chubby-cheeked and mild-mannered to develop the sense of menace more suited to his role. The few special effects are adequate but not exciting, more average tv movie quality than blockbuster FX studio level.

All in all, a nice movie to see with the family over the holidays.
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The Beyond (2017)
Excellent Euro-zone Science Fiction
19 October 2018
No explosions, no prima-donna astronauts, no trigger-happy space explorers... and yet i was gripped from the opening credits by this very plausible documentary-style look at a near-future space anomaly's appearance and the space agency's response. I've seen complaints elsewhere about the dialogue but to my ear the writing and delivery suited the documentary style very well and added credibility to the characters & plot.
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Afflicted (2018– )
Sensationalist BS that makes a mockery of serious life-altering conditions
15 August 2018
...and belittles the people who suffer from them.

The preponderance of interviews with specialists in mental illness and the lack of real biomedical information about the illnesses discussed does a grave injustice to sufferers and their families.

It looks to me like the producers tricked vulnerable people into expending their scarce energy and resources to appear in a film they thought would help get the word out about their very real problems, and instead got played for fools. If I was one of them, I'd sue.
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The sleeper hit of the Netflix holiday offerings
23 December 2017
I'd never have rented this based on the blurb, and for the past few weeks I ignored it on Netflix. But tonight I gave it the 10-minute test. Ended up glued to the tube. This is the sleeper of the season for Netflix holiday comedy offerings, that might be especially made for SNL fans. If you like movies like 'Rare Imports' and 'Get Santa', take this American offering for a test drive.

A slow start, a bit clunky on the early ensemble work, but brother when it hits its stride it is meta-hysterical. During the run-up to the bridge, with the glorious Christmas anthem in full orchestral splendor, I damned near stopped breathing. The outtakes after the credits are a mni-van full of wit and sass.

***RATED R AND EARNS IT!!! (there is some really gross stuff in this but they don't dwell on any of it; I've heard the amazing comedic cast improv'd a lot).

Not suitable for Family watching.
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A modern American Christmas classic
14 December 2017
American cinema doesn't do ensemble that well very often, and it frequently gets punished at the box office, as well as by viewers and by reviewers, for even trying. This film pulls together a low-key cast with an intelligent script and ends up as a quirky, darkly humorous drama that unfolds over Christmas Eve.

The characters are a motley crew of misfits and losers, stereotypical small-towners on the surface, with the obligatory pregnant woman arriving as a tv reporter from the big city. The actors, many of whom we're used to seeing in bigger roles where they tend to take up a lot of screen, give dialed-back performances that allow - even expect - the audience to fill in the subtext. And there's a fair bit of subtext lying behind and between the stripped-down dialogue: about power and corruption, war and trauma, family and gender roles, the nature of life's choices and the cold reality of death.

This could be done as a stage play and it would be getting rave reviews that mentioned Tennessee Williams. I'm not used to seeing so much packed into a contemporary, for-the-masses movie, and I'm plainly not alone in that. The poor reviews may be due in part to an un-sparing execution that's cutting too close to the tragi-comic reality of the modern American south.
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It could have been awesome
10 December 2017
I really wanted to like this movie. The setting's gorgeous and the plot of teen loss and loneliness redeemed at Christmas through the healing power of friendly spirits should have been great.

Sadly, the execution of this great idea was lacking.

The actors were mostly okay, but the script gave them little to work with. There were some touching moments but they were few.

Character motivations got lost in the scrap paper bin or on the cutting room floor until far too late in the film for viewers to care much. Plot and subplots were all crammed in there together. The spiritual significance of the night pond never quite made itself clear, and the inspirational speech that was clearly supposed to redeem that main plank of the plot was frankly a mess, both in writing and in delivery. There was absolutely no reason for the townsfolk to clap except that they were told to. Or maybe because that was the last time they had to show up for filming.

Like I said at the start, I really wanted to like this film. But I couldn't.
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OtherLife (2017)
A superbly understated brain-bending film
22 October 2017
If you're looking for whiz-bang, this isn't the film for you.

It's very much a character-driven movie, with the tech and special effects limited to a few screens of moving-mandala formulation. Scenery varies from sufficient to spectacular.

The excitement's in the ideas - none of them preachy in presentation - and in the acting. Questions of life and death and pulling the plug blend with the technological conundrums like: just because we can, does it mean we should, and where do we draw the line on interfering with personal autonomy via tampering with brain chemicals? The lead actor, Jessica De Gouw, carries the script's weight seamlessly, with solid but unexciting support.

An exciting entry in Australia's burgeoning film industry.
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Alienate (2016)
Surprisingly layered for an indie SF tale
22 October 2017
Thanks must go to those earlier reviewers who mentioned being pleasantly surprised. They convinced me to give this tidy little film the 15-minute test. It drew me and kept me in, to the point that I went back and re-watched those first 15 after the final credits, to spot any subtleties I'd missed by not knowing the characters then.

A few elements that will put off any viewers looking for a fun night of watching aliens take over the world:

  • a long wait for the aliens to be seen, and then they're not exotic, quite low-brow in fact. - complex shifting back and forth in time between two couples' pasts and present - sparse dialogue that plays thematically with the title's meaning - the emotional tone of all the characters is disturbingly realistic rather than pumped up for quick thrills.

Definitely not a waste of the time spent watching.
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Chappie (2015)
This is not your cutesy American sentient robot movie
14 July 2017
This South African movie is a gritty, violent, funny and heart-touching blend of Robocop and Short Circuit. Believe it or not.

The setup is standard: armies of robot police 'scouts' are on the streets, assisting the human police to keep order. There's an earnest, well-meaning robotics whiz who wants to give the scouts more heart. A heartless CEO whose only focus is maximizing profits. A rival robotics engineer hoping to replace the scouts with his steroidal variant. Assorted thugs, mugs, goons, and ne-er-do-wells. And one robot wakes up.

After that, it all gets weird.

The script is slick, the acting delightful, especially Dev Patel, who pretty much carries it for the human side despite Sigourney Weaver getting higher billing. Unknown-to-me Sharlto Copley infuses the sentient scout, 22, with a winning personality. The filming is competent, though not inspired. Johannesburg is a dystopian character in its own right.

Well worth a Saturday evening.
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Fun rom-com in farcical European tradition
12 July 2017
This movie is a visual delight, a mockery of high fashion, and an enjoyable comedy of errors for viewers who can cope with the differences between European and American storytelling.

It's an ensemble piece, with the male and female leads getting not much more centre-stage time than the rest of the players. There are strong elements of farce, some nods to the physical comedy tradition of Commedia del Arte, and a lot of sacred cows being shot down.

First love, second love, the nature of marriage and the reasons for divorce all get a look-in, as does the mutable nature of family, making it a more thoughtful script than is usual in US wedding movies.

If you can cope with subtitles and take in serious subjects amidst laughter, allow for some in-jokes you won't get about attitudes between, for example, Italian and Dutch and other European countries, you just might enjoy this cheery little visual feast of a wedding movie.
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Resistance (2011)
As all the best war movies are, this is....
21 April 2017
... an anti-war movie from its first moments.

Owen Sheers, author of the novel on which the movie was based, was raised in the valleys where the movie is filmed, and heard about the training for local resistance cells to be activated in the event of invasion. He could predict the likely responses of the people there, and this, perhaps, is what gives the characters their silent, enduring truth.

An alternate-history WW2 movie in which D-Day was anticipated correctly by the Germans and the USA didn't (apparently) enter the war, 'Resistance' joins 'The Last Valley' and 'Midnight Clear' as a psychological double-act of both exploring and exposing war. It's a haunting and intimate look at war as an act committed - or not - by individuals rather than nations, with unspoken combat ongoing between individuals and their own values, their own allegiances, their own communities.

A film that sticks in your head and heart when far more active war films have blurred into one amorphous mass of explosions and blood.
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Heavy symbolism almost buries the delicate psychological drama
4 February 2017
Tilda Swinton can convey more with her mouth shut, her face half-hidden behind a pair of out-sized mirror shades, than many actors can with their entire vocal and expressive range on display. She's a tour-de-force here although Ralph Fiennes gets all the mentions because his character is continually exposing himself verbally, physically, emotionally.

If you're expecting a sun-drenched frolic on an Italian island, don't watch this. There's sun in plenty but even the earliest frolics are overlaid by a surreal and claustrophobic silence that permeates all the film's future moments whether erotic, awkward, or enraged.

The central character, a rock star, is recovering from a throat operation and forbidden to speak or sing for two weeks. Her ex-lover, a music producer, intrudes on her seemingly idyllic island retreat with his daughter and brashly turns the place upside down.

Much is made of the sexual tension but that's only the top layer. Anyone watching for that alone will find this film predictable, even dull. The real psychological depth lies in all the issues beyond sex, which are subtly presented throughout. Issues of aging and loss, fear for the future and clinging to the illusion of stability. Of relationships tangled deeper than any kelp bed.

There are layers of symbolism, visually, musically, and thematically. Some are bludgeons, others are mere whispers.

The last moments left with a couple of questions that will keep the characters alive in my mind for a good while and bring them back hereafter when I see certain landscapes, architecture, or clothing.

Enjoy the scenery, deplore the brashness and the duplicity, contemplate the clothing and the camera angles, and if you're not drawn in by the half-hour mark, it's not your kind of movie.
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