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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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You Again (2010)
A movie about women for women, mis-labeled as rom-com
2 December 2016
The really bad reviews here surprise me. This is not a lousy movie.

Don't be fooled by that rom-com, starry-eyed wedding advertising.

The wedding is not the centerpiece of the film. The bride's not the main character. This is an ensemble piece, nominally led by the actor previously known for her highly-regarded years as the teen sleuth Veronica Mars but with tremendous support from more mature actors with great comic chops, including Betty White, Sigourney Weaver, and Jamie Curtis.

Also, high school is not forever. It just feels that way.

The men, for a change, are the ones cast mostly as set-dressing, which, from the reviews here, really bothers some men. A weakness of the film from a female perspective is that the women allow their men's pronouncements (ie 'Go to your rooms') to pass unchallenged instead of telling the man to butt out and let them work things out for themselves. At least the men weren't given the 'manly' role of rushing in to save the day.

There are some heartfelt moments and some hilarious ones, not quite enough of either, and one of the reconciliations feels far too 'easy' with insufficient foreshadowing. Too much telling instead of showing for some characters made it a bit uneven.

This is a slightly slapstick, marginally over-the-top cinematic look at the awful ways women and girls tear each other down and the better ways they build each other up. It just tries to do a bit too much in the time allotted.
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Jackrabbit (2015)
Surprisingly good for a low-budget indie SF film
26 November 2016
This film achieves a lot with limited sets, low tech, and a handful of unknown actors.

The dystopian mood is well-maintained through not only the soundtrack but with camera angles, colour palette and lighting; all of these speak to both technical skill and consistency of directorial vision.

The lead characters are bare-bones but not stereotypical. They appear genuinely vulnerable, in keeping with their surroundings.

The plot is not unique - self-serving and ostensibly socially-protective corporation versus the ordinary man - but the psychological aspects are well done.

There are moral choices to be made.

A surprisingly good low-budget indie SF film.
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An indie that takes just the right amount of time
16 November 2016
This understated indie film features an ensemble of unknown actors in a slow-building family drama with lighter moments.

While the focus is on the blossoming gay love triangle, there are hints of trouble in the others' lives too. Emotional subtleties are allowed to develop at a pace that respects the very real truths unfolding and the almost European level of vulnerability between characters.

The palette is muted throughout, likely from budgetary constraints, but it works to keep the focus on the actors. The Florida setting allows for casual outdoor scenes and a few shots of great natural beauty.

This film will never set the world on fire but it has a lot of heart. It knows what's really important, in family, in weddings, and at Christmas
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Once Upon a Holiday (2015 TV Movie)
Tries to do too much and ends up too little
16 November 2016
It's a modern American mash-up of The Princess Diary, Roman Holiday and While You Were Sleeping, with remarkably little of the charm of any of those.

For a Christmas story set in part around a magic store run by a dedicated seasonal Santa Claus, it was sadly lacking in magic either festive or cinematic. The dialogue is no more flabby than usual in the holiday rom-com genre but the actors – with the mildly amusing exception of the older couple in their magic shop – have very little personality and absolutely no spark. The little homage to Brosnan's Thomas Crown Affair at the end had masses of comedy potential, all of which was left untapped. The romantic ending, of a man with a very busy life of his own dropping it all for a helpless woman he hardly knows, felt very flat despite the pretty alpine setting.

If you're looking for a heartwarming romance or a sparkling comedy this holiday season, look elsewhere.
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Time Lapse (2014)
Great psychological thriller hidden under the SF skirts
30 September 2016
This is a surprisingly suspenseful gem of a low-budget movie.

It's also a fascinating psychological study and a meditation on the nature of roommate relationships, and a twisting metaphysical mind-bender on the nature of time and predestination.

There's nobody among the three roommates to root for at the start of this claustrophobic film, but gradually the paths diverge and you find yourself rooting for the least objectionable at any given moment. The low-key palette makes splashes of vivid colour more stark and foreshadowing.

This is simply a wonderful film on many levels.
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Textuality (2011)
Kris Holden-Reid without clothes.
18 January 2016
The above is a good enough excuse for me to go back over a scene.

However, this isn't the best date movie. It will raise too many questions in your companion's mind and you'll have to guard your phone from snooping forever afterward.

That said, it's not as painfully bad as some reviews would have you believe. The moral of the story is simple. When you find something real, you have to make a hard choice: to back out of all the other fun, fleeting entanglements, no matter how messy it might get - or let the real one walk.

Yes, the male lead is wooden. Most of the characters aren't nuanced. The female lead carries the emotions for the whole cast. She doesn't show a lot of range, but it's there. The most believable to me are the Three Musketeers - I may have met each of them although not under similar circumstances.

But the very awkwardness of the acting and the filming make this little Canadian film a more real portrayal of the confusions and mistaken assumptions and unavoidable wounds of the current e-fueled, spoiled-for-choice world out there. Maybe the real problem with this movie is that it was released five years ago, before quite so many people had grown into and through this inescapable slice of 21st-century life.
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12 Men of Christmas (2009 TV Movie)
Forgettable holiday fluff with a couple of highly watchable scenes
6 January 2016
This movie is predictable and forgettable, a Christmas rom-com that ends happily ever after before barely grazing the surface of the leads' potential character arcs. Not that I am convinced either of the lead actors was capable of greater depth, but the script didn't give them any room to try. The secondaries were reasonably attractive and warm and human, but didn't get much in the way of lines or focus.

The reasons to watch:

1. Breathtaking mountain scenery 2. The photo shoot montage is excellent eye candy with humour attached 3. The mid-plot mutual-loathing confession of attraction that's a blatant ripoff from Pride & Prejudice but done in language far less polite.

4. The nod to the very real issue of cash-strapped Search and Rescue services, staffed by volunteers and relying often on borrowed or out-dated equipment, who manage at tremendous risk to life, limb, and family/romance to bring most people home most of the time from the wildernesses they've wandered into.

It's a 6 for those 4 reasons. Otherwise, it might be a 3.
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Noel (2004)
Possibly the best film Paul Walker ever did
28 December 2015
You expect nuanced, heart-wringing performances from the likes of Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Penelope Cruz, and Alan Arkin. They've got the acting chops for almost any role, and they are a director's dream cast for an ensemble piece with the sweet sadness of this quiet Christmas film. They deliver. Sarandon has seldom been so luminous, Cruz so vulnerable.

But Paul Walker? It starts off as a familiar role - the cop, the blue-eyed good guy - and rapidly moves beyond that stereotype into territory and emotional range I honestly never though he could traverse. No car chases, no punch-ups, no us-versus-them and emerging triumphant over evil. This role, in this movie, shows where he could have gone, to become one of this generation's great character actors. In that stellar company of actors, he was not outmatched.

Oh, yes, and the script is pitch-perfect. Each separate plot is internally credible and consistent, each looped through at least one other like garland around the holiday tree, all gleaming gently in the glow of many heart-warming lights.

Prepare your hankie. You'll need it.
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Get Santa (2014)
Dry humour and Jim Broadbent
21 December 2015
This dry, wry, sometimes snarky Christmas tale touches buttons from the ridiculous to the very human, neatly and surely.

Several standard American holiday tropes - Santa getting lost before the holiday, kids asking for their parents back, elves who need humans to save the day - are turned on their heads in inimitable Brit-film style. Jim Broadbent does Santa very well. There's a 'Bad Santa' element, Keystone-esque cops and prison guards, and some hilarious farting reindeer.

The simple human story of father and son bonding, of dad and step-dad and mom making peace with each other, is strong enough to be convincing. And heart-warming.
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Santa Claws (2014)
So deliberately bad it's quite enjoyable
21 December 2015
In the tradition of Shaun of the Dead or Fido, the humour is campy and the effects deliberately annoying.

The cats are a wondrous mockery of those endless puppies-save-Christmas movies.

The kids universally can't act 'realistically' and the adults are B-move standards, but there are some wonderfully over-the-top freak-outs.

This is absolutely not a movie to be taken seriously, just to be enjoyed for its send-up of pretty much every Christmas movie trope out there.
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Pete's Christmas (2013 TV Movie)
This generation's Scrooged
14 December 2015
Family safe - no bad language or encouragement to lie, cheat, steal, or mock This is one Christmas movie that doesn't need fake snow (although there's enough of that too). Partly filmed in Ontario, Canada, on the shores of the Great Lakes, it's got plenty of the seasonal white stuff around in all the outdoor shots. The actors don't look too hot in their heavy winter clothing, and their breath sometimes frosts quite naturally. It's refreshing.

Zachary (Wimpy Kid) Gordon doesn't quite have the comedy chops of Bill Murray, but he's believable and sweet as a teen caught up in his own family's version of the day that keeps repeating until he gets it right. He's supported by some strong Canadian talent - Molly Parker as his overworked mom and Peter DaCunha as his too-perfect little brother - as well as Americans recognizable from a good range of decent television. Bruce Dern gives a solid performance as grouchy Grandpa.

Some slapstick and pratfalls but a lot of the humour is sweet rather than mocking. This is a series of small stories framed by, rather than tightly focusing on, Pete gaining maturity enough to see what he truly does want most for Christmas.
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Marigold (2007)
A charming modern fairy-tale of love across two cultures
21 January 2015
This movie exceeded my expectations.

For the first ten minutes i was not sure I'd even finish watching. Ali Larter's character was thoroughly unpleasant and it looked like the whole movie would be filled with characters of pure plastic.

Instead, I was drawn into a surprisingly sophisticated blending of two cultures' film-making styles, with a modern romance melding almost seamlessly with the Hindi dance scenes being filmed for a movie-within-the-movie whose story line, as with many Bollywood films, was a myth-based love story well-spiced with humour.

Although the title character sped from ultra-entitled bitch to sweet, yearning young woman in love (about as fast as her learning to dance stunningly in a mix of Hindi style and American freestyle), the rest of the story flowed well enough to temporarily smother my natural incredulity about ancient family traditions being set aside for pretty blonds.

This is a fairy tale, after all, a nice blending of movie-making and mythos in both Hollywood and Bollywood, that should not be taken for a realistic portrayal of either culture, but for a charming story of love that will make you laugh as often as cry.
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Princess (2008 TV Movie)
Sweet attempt to make fairy tales modern
5 January 2015
While not as polished as some recent big-screen releases on the same concept, Princess has its own brand of accessible fairy-tale charm for kids and tweens of today.

The modern characters are recognizable types and the princess appears as almost a human version of the best old-school Disney princesses, from her dark curls and dainty tiaras to the succession of gowns that will make any young princess-wannabee's heart beat faster.

A couple of things dragged my score for this flick down a couple of points: 1. The mystery behind the princess takes a long time to come to the fore, and 2. too much screen time is given to the not-very-interesting travails of our hapless hero, most likely to spare the limited CG budget.

Still, the scenery is gorgeous, the princess adorable and determined, and the story touches lightly on the motif that any girl, anywhere, might find her life-mission and her happiness.
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Goodbye World (2013)
Neither a 'disaster movie' nor a disaster
4 January 2015
This under-rated little film is a slow build story of relationships in all their real-life complexity.

The characters are (fairly) normal humans, geeky college friends who each went on their own path post-school, and are yanked back together when the world they grew into falls apart at the seams.

The lack of explosive on-screen destruction and explosive emotional confrontations may dismay viewers looking for a stereotypical disaster movie with all its CG-heavy scenery and OTT reality-show emoting.

But those deliberately understated elements are exactly how the tension builds and the human stories, with all their heartbreak and forced adaptation, are most strongly revealed.

The disaster is only the catalyst for the confrontations: with the friends' own natures and past secrets, with their most significant others, and with the shocked and disintegrating world of modern America as seen in and from their isolated rural arena.

If you're looking for a thinking person's examination of life after the internet goes down, check this one out.
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Only seasonal generosity could lift this lifeless film to a 5
23 December 2014
But my inner Scrooge won't let me go that high.

The leads have the depth of a facial tissue, and a range of facial expression from facile-smug to facile-worried. The aesthetic is disjointed in every aspect of set- and character-dressing.

The plot is clichéd family dysfunction from the first stilted line of dialogue. It manages not to actually explore any of the very real issues it chucks onto the screen, except via the aforementioned clichéd sentences before they're abandoned for the next huge segment of screen time.

Yes, there are some funny situations set up around the hapless city-boy boyfriend, but they too are only the truncated version of what could be quite funny episodes, maybe (in some other film) with some relevance to the plot.

I kept looking for any trace of a deeper understanding in the script or acting, but these are simply cardboard characters being shoved around on stage.

Oh, and despite the location on a Christmas tree farm, there's pretty much zip about Christmas in theme or conversation or decor for 90% of the movie.
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12 Dates of Christmas (2011 TV Movie)
A bit more depth than your average holiday rom-com
6 December 2014
This was a surprisingly fun and charming holiday movie.

It does hit the familiar tropes of the groundhog day trope of repeating from the same moment, and the romantic element.

However, the heroine very quickly figures out her repeats don't have to keep repeating exactly the same. She learns about life, and herself, and uses the days to try things she was afraid of, and get to know people in her neighbourhood.

Although there are some leaps and it's not entirely clear just how many repeats she gets - or, despite the title, whether she gets 12 dates with the same fellow - this is a charming movie with a bit more depth than the average holiday rom-com.
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