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Monday, December 10, 2018

CHRISTMAS CAPSULES: Snowmance (2017)

If you want a surprising example of "perfect" holiday romance for me, this is it.
A woman, Sarah, and her best male friend, Nick, make a snowman (called a “snow beau”, and named Cole) every year, that captures all of the qualities she is looking for in her ideal boyfriend, with the idea that one day she will find him in real life. Well, twenty years on and she still hasn't found that man of her dreams...until a weird but handsome man, also ironically named Cole, shows up on her front door out of nowhere. Immediately, she knows he is the one, and he promises her the life of adventure that she has always dreamed of. But is he too good to be true? Or will she realize that the man of her dreams is actually the one that's been right under her nose the entire time?

This one can't help but be a stinker, right? Actually, it's quite the opposite, with a charming cast all-around, good acting, and more genuinely funny moments than we've ever seen in a Hallmark-style romance movie. Sure, it's predictable as all hell, but it also benefits from slightly eschewing the normal earmarks of such movies: namely, there are no unbelievable fights between the main love interests that spring out of nowhere just to fulfill genre expectations, and—at the risk of slight spoilers—no evil bad guy that suddenly shows his true colors. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of other “required” scenes that get checked off, but they're not annoyingly done, and all fit within the theme of the story.

At the risk of sounding shallow, the cast (save for Cole) isn't traditionally attractive, but they add depth and personality to their characters that are otherwise missing from other such movies, and the chemistry is there. (Hey, in my defense, the attractiveness of cast is generally the only satisfaction one can fall back on if things go south with the story, which is a common occurrence in flicks of this type.)

Honestly, this is one that we had no expectations for, and, while saying it “blew us away” might be quite an exaggeration, it was not only enjoyable for what it was, but honest-to-goodness just enjoyable as a lighthearted piece of fluff. One of the rare wins for MarVista Entertainment, which has to be one of the worst production companies of all time (yet is clearly successful enough to be able to make dozens upon dozens of these movies every minute).

RATING: 8/10


Sunday, December 9, 2018

CHRISTMAS CAPSULES: Christmas With a View (2018)

Clara is the manager of a restaurant in a small town who dreams one day of owning her own. Shane is a “celebrity” chef whose claim to fame is winning a popular cooking show. Of course, instead of moving to LA and taking advantage of his newfound fame, he instead settles down in Clara's small town to try to answer a question that has puzzled him his whole life. Surely sparks must fly, right?

Complicating matters is Clara's sleazy boss, who makes plans of buying a property and making Clara the owner if she helps him to seal the deal. But, of course, Shane's prying only seems like jealousy to Clara (although why a celebrity chef would be jealous of someone else's success doesn't really add up), who pushes him away in order to pursue her dreams. Will she find out the truth about her sleazy boss? Or will she end up giving love away for her own selfish pursuits?

The story weaves its way through increasingly ridiculous twists and turns, mainly thanks to Clara's naivety, and there are more than enough sequences that will make all but the most dire Christmas romance aficianados reach for the “stop” button. But it does benefit from above-average acting (for this type of movie), and very good-looking leads that at least help to take the edge off the annoying story.

Even with the lowered expectations that come along with this type of film, it's not very good, but there's enough there that you should at least be able to finish it; at the very least, would make good background noise for a Christmas party, or other holiday festivities where paying close attention wouldn't be required.

On a side note: Have I been lied to about what a Harlequin novel is? I'm noticing a lot of Christmas movies based off of them lately--this one proudly touts it on the poster--but those novels have the reputation of being sex-filled romps. Are there separate kinds of Harlequin novels, or are these movie cash grabs watering down the source material for family-friendly holiday fun? I'm too lazy to research this, so please feel free to answer in the comments.

RATING: 5/10


Saturday, December 8, 2018

CHRISTMAS CAPSULES: The Christmas Calendar (2017)

Not to be confused with the similarly-titled Netflix original The Holiday Calendar, this MarVista-produced (oh God) holiday garbage is about Emily, a woman who runs a bakery in a small town (of course it’s a small town). Gerrard is the Frenchman who runs a rival bakery in a supermarket across the street. But, despite making it painfully obvious from the beginning, Emily is too stupid to realize that the man is interested in her, and what should be a quick ten-second movie is instead drawn out to feature length. Lucky us. Oh, and the movie gets its title from a random calendar that shows up in the woman’s bakery one day; the whole town has nothing better to do than to get caught up in the mystery of who the secret admirer is that sent it.

I don’t know if my definition of a “good” Hallmark-style Christmas movie is that different from everyone else’s, but this one hit every single note of annoyance for me: There are the old gossiping grandmas who clearly get a load of excitement from figuring out the mystery man; the villain attempting to take down the main star in the form of the manager of the supermarket across the street; the fact that the holiday calendar provides such scintillating mystery that the hashtag GOES VIRAL nationwide; the small-town setting; the clear and unbridled stupidity of the main girl, who believes the male baker is out to steal her business, misses all of his blatant cues of interest in her, and then suddenly, of course, falls in love with him on the writer's cue. It's like a hall-of-fame of tropes, all gathered right here for the non-discerning holiday romance lover.

Really, the only impressive thing in all of this is Zeb’s outstanding French accent, which isn’t one of those “mostly English but slightly foreign” accents, but a full-on, hard-to-understand-sometimes, put-closed-captioning-on-so-you-don't-miss-a-line heavy one that shows a dedication to this that no one else in the production had. I also liked the character of Ivy, although I still can’t tell if her hilariously deadpan delivery was intentional, or just a result of poor acting; either way, her awkwardness is a rare bright spot in a movie that’s so full of schlocky emotional drivel that it becomes almost physically painful. This is all just by-the-numbers whimsy, but not the good kind: a movie so impossibly full of holiday charm that it works in reverse, sapping all the holiday excitement from the viewer, and leaving behind a lobotomized mass of emptiness. Don’t be surprised if you walk away from the viewing unable to feel happy ever again.

RATING: 2/10


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

CHRISTMAS CAPSULES: Miss Me This Christmas (2017)

We don't watch a lot of black Christmas movies. No, not because we're racist, but for two reasons: 1.) There just aren't that many to begin with, and 2.) We don't really think about it. The two go hand-in-hand, as scrolling through the holiday offerings on any number of streaming sites reveals countless thumbnail images of white families grinning like idiots against Christmas tree backdrops, while minorities seem to be confined to starring in the “crime” subgenres.

So when my wife caught not one, but two holiday movies on Netflix that featured non-whites, they made her list immediately. Miss Me This Christmas is the first one we chose to watch...and I don't know if the fact that it's every bit as bad as most Caucasian-made holiday tales is a small victory, or a huge disappointment. And that's a shame, because it boasts a really good-looking cast (Eva Marcille as the best friend is an absolute stunner), and above-average acting, but it all gets lost in a story that never really seems to understand where it wants to go, much less how to go about getting there.

The main story involves the marriage of Regina and Franklin Young, young lovers who got married on Christmas Day and fell in love with the holiday as a result. But after accusing Franklin of infedelity, Regina decides she wants a divorce...a divorce that won't be finalized until right smack dab on December 25th. Talk about putting a damper on Christmas!

To get some space until the marriage is officially over, Regina moves in with her best friend Trish, a partygirl who lives in a penthouse suite at a fancy hotel, and starts falling in love with an odd, awkward millionaire who lives next door. Every once in a while, Franklin checks in to make sure we still remember that he's a part of the story, but other than that, he seems largely forgotten, as the story weaves along from one poorly-conceived plot point, to the next. This makes the ending—don't think I'm really adding any spoilers here if I mention the former couple decide to stay together after all—seem all the more forced.

Fans of the obligatory sequences where one spouse catches another in a compromising position that isn't at all what it looks like, but walks away in anger before verifying that their fears were actually founded, will find plenty to like here, because that's pretty much all that happens, back and forth, over and over again; it's all a series of half-assed misunderstandings, and incredibly unbelievable actions that sink what could have been at least an above-average holiday romp.

Sadly, the other predominantly-black Christmas movie on Netflix, You Can't Fight Christmas, seems to recycle many of the same characters (though the main stars are different), and looks like it will be just more of the same. C'mon guys, when can washed-up black stars get starring roles in cliched holiday romances like their white brethren?

RATING: 4/10


Sunday, December 2, 2018

CHRISTMAS CAPSULES: The Holiday Calendar (2018)

Starring in these lighthearted holiday romance movies is about the equivalent of starring in a porn: You never see top talent star in either of those examples, nor has anyone who got their “start” in one of those ever crossed over into mainstream movie roles. They are basically a vessel for the Haylie Duffs and Lacey Chaberts of the world to still earn a paycheck after their primes have escaped them.

That being said, Netflix has immense buying power, and The Holiday Calendar features probably the best looking main star combination of any Hallmark-style romance film ever made, in Kat Graham and Quincy. Often, viewers only have the looks of the cast to fall back on when the story takes a nose dive, or when characters act out of character just to force the “fight scene” seemingly required of all these movies. Yet, they both bring some acting chops, as well as a believable level of chemistry, to their roles, which helps to elevate this one above the norm.

Graham is Abby, a woman who, of course, is looking for love. Quincy is her longtime best friend who, of course, has always been in love with her. When Abby's uncle gifts her an antique advent calendar, she initially thinks nothing of it...until the items inside lead her to Ty, a man who's too good to be true. Quincy's pleas that something isn't right with him fall on deaf ears (there's the fight scene!) as Abby feels she has found the perfect one for her. But the calendar works in mysterious ways, and by the time she reaches the final day, she finds that all the clues were pointing in an unexpected direction. Well, new for her...I mean, we knew where it was headed once the opening credits started.

This one is less annoying than most, though there are still an abundance of “Why are they acting that way?” moments that seem inserted out of sheer obligation to holiday films moreso than anything else. Yet it's watchable, thanks to the believability of the lead pair, and...well, really, that's about it. Everything else is pretty lackluster and too predictable.

RATING: 6/10 (Note: These ratings are weighted and adjusted for Christmas movies and are not at all comparable to ratings of "real", "normal" "films".)


Saturday, December 1, 2018

CHRISTMAS CAPSULES: The Princess Switch (2018)

The only thing worse than one Vanessa Hudgens...
Oh God, stop me if you've heard this one before: Two lookalikes switch places to experience life from the other person's viewpoint for a few days. In this case, it's Vanessa Hudgens, who gets to play both a baker from Chicago, and a Duchess who is sick of spending life as royalty. Along the way, they'll learn a few things about Christmas, love, but above all...themselves.

I know, I know, Christmas movies are supposed to be trite, familiar stories that audiences already know scene-for-scene without even having to watch them. In fact, all American movies are basically required to follow that formula (as the thousands of movie-based-on-popular-comic-book movies released monthly can attest); but the best ones, at least for me, are ones that at least try to breathe some new life into the subgenre. Hell, even if it can omit just one genre cliché, that can be considered a small victory. Such a notion is too advanced for The Princess Switch, which pretty much just relies on the overrated looks of Vanessa Hudgens to carry the movie from beginning to end.

I'll admit, her looks did grow on me a little bit by the end--she does have that perfect kind of innocence in her face that almost makes her destined to star in one of these vehicles--but it's obvious that most, if not all, of the budget went toward appeasing her, leaving nothing else but the standard mix of unimaginative jokes and two equally uninspiring love stories. In short, it's just the sort of thing die-hard fans of these movies will gobble up unequivocally, but that won't win over anyone else.

RATING: 4/10 (Note: These ratings are weighted and adjusted for Christmas movies and are not at all comparable to ratings of "real", "normal" "films".)


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hereditary (2018)

Director: Ari Aster
Writer(s): Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolff

I have fallen for an ad campaign.

That might not sound like a necessarily negative statement. After all, people fall for them thousands of times daily, given that's the entire point of their existence. Companies are always trying to push their brands out there using catchy monikers and hyperbolic statements, using whatever they can to get a leg up on the competition. It's just a fact of life. Advertisements are everywhere, and I must say that I have grown quite accustomed to completely ignoring them. But everyone is a victim at some point.

I first heard about Hereditary back in January. It was actually a friend who mentioned it to me, having read on some horror news site about a film out of the Sundance Film Festival that was garnering praise and reputation as the scariest film of the year. That's a pretty hefty statement for any horror film released in a given year, but an even more impressive feat when the month it's released happens to be the first month of the whole goddamned year. Immediately, my interest was piqued. A trailer was released a short time later, and that solidified things—I had to see this in a theater.

Let me be clear about the weight of that statement: I don't see movies in a theater. Like, almost ever. I find it to be a huge waste of money. Yes, please let me pay $30 for a popcorn and soda, the two cheapest things to make on any menu and probably a 1000% markup, after having just dropped $20 for two pieces of paper. Hmm, I'm very baffled as to how piracy is a widespread problem.

Hereditary starts off brilliantly, with an opening shot that slowly tracks around a room before settling on a dollhouse. The camera pans into it closely, and we realize it's a smaller version of a bedroom, complete with a doll lying in the bed. Then, the door opens and a character walks in, It's a brilliant, seamless transition from static miniature shot to live-action film, and just one in a myriad of examples of technological prowess featured within. But technical prowess does not a movie make, and Hereditary crumbles under the weight of its own convoluted story.

It wastes no time setting up what we believe will be the outer shell of the story: Annie (Toni Collette, in a performance for which there are no words) and the rest of her family are mourning the loss of her mother, who recently passed away. Well, “mourning” might be a strong word, as most of the family members don't really seem to mind that she is gone. We eventually learn that she was a bitter old woman even when she was fine, but was made even more unbearable as she slowly started giving in to the effects of dementia, and this became increasingly difficult to bear for all the remaining members of the family.

The old woman fell out of touch with almost everyone in the family, but she always held an unhealthy fascination with Charlie, Annie's introverted thirteen-year-old daughter. Charlie is a simple little girl, who likes to “cluck” her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and who has a weakness for sweets (predominantly chocolate bars; however, she has a severe allergy to nuts). But her simplicity and innocence belies a morbid fascination with death. For example, after a bird commits accidental suicide after flying into her class window, she calmly grabs a pair of scissors, and goes outside to decapitate the already-dead animal. She also passes her time drawing creepy portraits of family members. Has she always had this predilection for disturbing pictures, or is she perhaps her dead grandmother?

From here, I will honor the “Critic's Code” (a moniker I just made up because I'm far from a respectable reviewer of movies) and resist the strong urge I have to spill some plot beans. Why? Because, supposedly, this is one of those films that work better the less you know about its plot; a notion I call bullshit to, because all I did was watch the trailer and I was still incredibly disappointed. I want to describe it in detail not to prepare you for what you're going to see, but to warn you about what you're going to see. And not because it's so shocking, but because it's so maddeningly stupid. (Though I must admit an early twist is perfectly shocking, and falsely lulls you into a sense that the film is heading down the right track.)

I guess I can kind of see the acclaim, because what Hereditary does right, it does almost perfectly: It's a technical masterpiece, with outstanding shots and visual trickery galore. I am rather surprised to see that Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover--amongst one of my favorite films of all time--also had a profound effect on writer/director Ari Aster, and while I cannot say that I would have picked up on that just from watching Hereditary, you can clearly see that, like Greenaway, he does have an artist's aptitude for creating striking visual compositions.

Then there's Toni Collette, who, quite frankly, gives one of the greatest horror performances of all time. I don't really pay attention to acting all that often, because it's generally the least interesting part of a movie for me. But she, as Annie, is required to run the gamut of emotions from endless despair, to pent-up rage, and does so with such a burning intensity and commitment to the role that's refreshing for a genre typically relegated to screaming women and one-note characters. No matter what you think of the film, there is no denying that she is the main reason any of it even remotely works whatsoever; the other actors seem to feed off her performance, and while no one can even come close to matching her, they all turn in solid renditions. I'm tempted to make some reference about how Collette not being nominated for some sort of major Hollywood award would be a travesty, but the whole Hollywood system is a travesty, a smoke and mirrors campaign that bases its awards on algorithms and politics, rather than those actually deserving to win. By this metric, it might actually mean more if she doesn't.

At the end of the day, though, Hereditary is an arthouse movie being forced into mainstream theaters. It's the kind of movie that critics get hard-ons over, while bemoaning the “average moviegoers” who are “idiots” and “don't get it” because it's a “cinematic masterpiece”. I understand that mentality, because I have to admit that normally I would be on their side: I do think a large portion of the theater-going public are idiots. They are the reason that people like Adam Sandler are considered funny beyond third grade, and the reason there are three Taken movies. They soak up bland drivel and predictable films without a second thought, encouraging studios to recycle ideas and forcefeeding audiences with docile, unchallenging pictures that merely regurgitate the same tired, familiar formulas ad nauseum, to inexplicably packed houses.

But you know what? Sometimes it's not the audience members that are morons; sometimes, it's the studios, who purposefully market films they themselves don't understand in completely misleading ways. The idea is obviously to create a building snowball worth of hype, and by the time the film is released and the audience realizes that what they're seeing is nothing at all like what they were promised, the studio already has their money. The reviews all point to how terrifying and gripping it is, but no one has mentioned how half the audience erupted in laughter as the final credits started rolling during the opening night screening I attended. And no, it wasn't the nervous laughter of a group of people who had just survived the world's scariest movie and weren't sure how to process their emotions. It was the laughter of a group of people who figured out, much too late, that they had been duped.

In some business circles, this would be known as a “bait-and-switch” tactic, but in Hollywood, it's known as “business as usual” (just like rape and pedophilia). And, just like the idiots they were targeting, I fell hook, line, and sinker.

Overall: 5/10.