Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey Review

Christmas movies are, if done right, a license to print money. They’re played on a loop on TV for a month at least, they also tend to get a fair bit more slack than other films. Negativity tends to be put aside because: ‘come on, it’s Christmas!’ I myself am guilty of this from time to time.

If you can hit that sweet spot of making audiences feel all warm and fuzzy, then you’re pretty much set for life. Even if your film is divisive, it still has its place; think for example of Love Actually. It receives its fair share of hatred online, but would it really be December if it wasn’t on TV seemingly every day?

The thing with making a Christmas classic is that it can take a few years to fully embed itself in the public consciousness, it’s not always a guaranteed immediate success. That having been said, these last few years have produced a few good-to-great Christmas films.

Last year gave us both Klaus and Last Christmas. The former being a stunningly-beautiful animated folk tale, and the latter a sweet (if a bit syrupy) story of Christmas love underscored with the music of George Michael to tremendous effect.

Both of these are great examples of more modern Christmas movies that may one day be revered in the same way as say, Elf or Home Alone, to name just a few. But my mention of Klaus was not accidental, for you see it links quite nicely with this week’s subject, with them both being Netflix Original films.

As I’ve said before, I’m quite fond of Netflix, and it has produced some truly fantastic films in the past few years, even in the face of outright hostility from an industry stubbornly rooted in the past. This year, however, you can imagine Netflix is feeling a bit smug, turns out giving people the option of watching at home has been quite handy.

Jingle Jangle is the story of a master toymaker, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) whose genius ideas are stolen from him by his one-time apprentice Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key). In the aftermath of this betrayal, Jeronicus’ life starts to fall apart, and his once-thriving toy store is now a run-down pawnbroker facing bankruptcy.

It’s a classic formula that will seem familiar to many viewers, but sometimes using a well-worn framework can be a good starting point for a creative new twist; and I’d say that Jingle Jangle gets there, just about.

There’s an aspect to Christmas movies that seem almost exclusive to this sub-genre. It’s more of a feeling than anything tangible, it’s a feeling of Christmas magic. Something that would seem corny and contrived in regular films is welcomed in the winter months, we crave that warm, fuzzy feeling they give us. No matter how much we see them, their effect never weakens.

Think of the feeling you get when George Bailey returns to reality in Bedford Falls when he runs down the main street wishing a ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone and everything he sees. That feeling of warmth you feel in that moment, that’s what I mean. It’s something that is hard to achieve, and even harder to pinpoint.

I don’t think it’s something you can ever really plan for, it’s just that mystical a formula. You either have it or you don’t. You could probably just say that it’s ‘Christmas cheer’ and either I’m going soft as I age, but I love this feeling, I crave it. Maybe it’s because I don’t drink or smoke, maybe this is my fix, I’m hooked on ‘Christmas cheer’.

I can’t even really describe what it is when I chase this high, but I know that Jingle Jangle gets there in the end, even though it’s a trek to get there. You can tell that it is really trying to create Christmas whimsy, but it really is something that comes naturally as opposed to by force, and it works this out by the end with a lovely final act that will warm the cockles of your heart.

There are issues, chief amongst which for me is the music. As crazy as this sounds coming from a musical-mad guy like me, I don’t think it needed to be a musical.

The songs feel like they’re trying to exist in that cultural sweet spot The Greatest Showman existed in, but they just aren’t memorable enough to achieve this. There isn’t one tune I can hum from it, and this, to me, is the litmus test for a movie musical, whether the songs stick in your head, and these songs don’t, sadly.

There are a few nice songs, specifically Jeronicus’ ballad ‘Over and Over’ but it still isn’t a ‘This Is Me’ or a ‘From Now On’. There is a reason why I am comparing it to Greatest Showman, by the way, as it isn’t just the songs going for a similar look and sound, but the set design, costumes and choreography seem to be taking no small amount of inspiration from the 2017 mega-hit.

There is nothing wrong with being inspired by the success of course, and there are enough differences to make it not seem like a cynical cash-grab. I’d even go out on a limb and say that Jingle Jangle is a better film than The Greatest Showman, in fact. It’s more sincere, it has more heart, and it’s not as forced as Showman was. Even though some of it seems derivative of the style of that film, it arguably improves on the aspects that it failed on, it just falls short in the music department.

Setting it apart from its contemporaries further is a few stop-motion animation sections that further adds to the films mystical ambience.

I found myself really liking the characters in JJ. Forest Whitaker’s performance as Jeronicus is tender, sweet and surprisingly well-rounded. His character arc is a very familiar one, the broken man learning to love again, it takes more than a few cues from Ebenezer Scrooge, but re-tools it for a modern audience; and his authoritative presence, mixed with his obvious softer side makes the character that much more relatable.

There’s also an incredibly likeable turn from Madalen Mills, who plays Jeronicus’ granddaughter. This is her first film credit, not that you’d know it from her charming performance which I’d call the films stand-out performance, as she really ties the films main narrative together, and does so with such impressive flair for such an inexperienced actor.

The cast is strong all-round, in fact. Keegan-Michael Key plays a great confident-yet-troubled Gustafson, who is ostensibly who we’re supposed to root against but has a streak of remorse about him, driven by another character, whom I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that Gustafson isn’t the films true villain.

Although it is nowhere near perfect as a film, Jingle Jangle still hits that sweet spot of heart-warming Christmas cheer well enough to be considered a worthy entry into the Christmas films canon. It has a few characters that don’t really add much to the story, and an underwhelming song list, but it delivers a sense of magic and wonders that you look for in a movie like this with a particularly memorable final act that fulfils all of the promises of the film. A lovely dose of Christmas magic.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special Review

When I said at the start of the month that I’d be looking at streaming releases, I certainly didn’t expect anything like this.

Being the ardent Star Wars fan that I am, I am aware of the Star Wars Holiday Special by its reputation; I have never been enough of a masochist to seek it out and watch it (I have to draw the line somewhere) but suffice to say that I know of its legendary awfulness by virtue of its almost mythical status in the realms of bad film/TV.

It has long been a target of derision from fans and creators alike, it was so bad that even George Lucas decreed that he’d never release it, which is saying something, after all, this is the man that deemed Attack of the Clones worthy of release, so to know that even he has his limits makes me curious as to just how bad it could have been but then I remember that my time on this Earth is limited, and sitting down to watch it would just be merely wasting an hour of that precious time.

If it has any positives though, it’s at least ripe for satire. Indeed, several shows have taken stabs at it in the past, it almost seems like too perfect a match for LEGO to step in and take a swipe at it, injecting their usual brand of humour and parody as they do so. So perfect that I almost forgot it was a thing until a trailer for it released a few weeks ago, I was very pleased to be reminded of its existence, however.

After the events of Rise of Skywalker, Rey is training Finn in the ways of the Force while the rest of their friends make preparations for Life Day celebrations. Frustration leads Rey to seek guidance from an old Jedi temple and a force-sensitive crystal that allows the holder to travel through time, leading to a trek through the series’ timeline to find the answers she seeks…

I don’t feel like I should waste time explaining the level of seriousness we’re operating on here, we all know the LEGO formula by now, their films all share the same tongue-in-cheek tone, but also they carry a reverence for their source material that means their products are always love-letters to their respective franchises, but love-letters that are never afraid to poke fun at their targets either.

In that respect, The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is nothing new and doesn’t re-invent the wheel or stray too far from the established formula, but there is enough to love about it for fans of the previous films, and even more to love for Star Wars fans. The film is full to the brim with relevant humour, utilising call-backs from earlier films, fan favourite characters, and even references to popular internet memes to create a lovingly satirical, and festive, Star Wars package.

It’s a light, fun watch for all the family that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and has just enough in the way of laughs for everyone from kids right up to the more seasoned Star Wars fans; and while it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it’s certainly a welcome addition to Disney’s streaming service, bringing some well-meaning humour to the galaxy far, far away, as well as perhaps a new longstanding festive classic, should it stand the test of time, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.

It is one of those films that seems to have more to see the more you look at it too, and will probably reward eagle-eyed viewers on the hunt for hidden jokes on second viewings, but there is a lot to satisfy in general as the plot speeds through all the different eras of the galaxy, packing in more and more fun cameos and in-jokes as it goes in the trademark LEGO fashion. It probably won’t make a lot of sense to people unfamiliar with the franchise, but I dare say that they aren’t its intended audience, and probably won’t be watching anyway. The more into the universe you are, the more you will get out of it and recognise, is the bottom line.

The voice cast is highly varied too, mixing returning familiar faces with experienced video game and animation voice actors to create a cohesive cast that brings the familiar faces to life again. Special mentions should go to Helen Sadler, whose exemplary performance as Rey anchors the rest of the cast to a solid base and succeeds in making her a likeable and sympathetic character (something a few people would argue the sequel films didn’t do). She may have been made of LEGO bricks here, but her quest is still earnest, even if it is wacky.

There’s no more that can be said about this film, it’s not a long watch or a challenging one, but it is entertaining, engaging and, at times, hilarious. Although it didn’t face strong competition, it is almost certainly the greatest Star Wars– related Holiday Special, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

Clue Review

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone likes Tim Curry. I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t love him, and it has been said that you can tell a lot about a person from what film they most know him from. So, when someone offered to lend me a film starring Tim Curry, based on a classic board game, how could I say no?

That board game in question is known in the US and indeed identified here as Clue. I know it better by its UK title ‘Cluedo’ but I think this may be a rare instance of me preferring the US title to the UK one, it rolls off the tongue easier, and it’s appropriate for the content, you hunt clues in the game. ‘Cluedo’ isn’t even really a word.

All that being said, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to adapt a board game to an actual feature film. Most of them aren’t exactly high on story content. Fair enough there’s the basis of a story in this game, a murder has occurred and we have to figure out who did it, but we’re given no more context than that. It’s not obvious why these people are in the house, or even really who they are.

Imagine trying to make a film adaptation of Monopoly where the main characters are a boot, a car and a top hat, it’s the same principle. Even though we know the names of the characters, we know nothing about them. But this movie bravely attempts to add character anyway.

Set in the 1950s on a particularly stormy night; a group of apparent strangers all receive invitations to a dinner party being thrown by an unknown host. After their arrival, it becomes obvious that they’re all embroiled in an elaborate con, and when an unexplained murder happens right in front of their eyes, they must try to piece together what happened, before the police arrive.

There is a popular form of theatrical entertainment here in the UK known as pantomime. It is usually performed near Christmas and is, more often than not, a high-camp, slapstick affair that utilises a lot of audience participation, and frequent cross-dressing (the leading boy character is traditionally portrayed by a female actor, and there is always a ‘dame’ an exaggerated character who is always a man dressed as a woman). I bring this up as it feels like the closest possible thing I can compare Clue to; with the big difference being, I usually have fun watching a pantomime.

It’s not that Clue isn’t camp, and irreverent, because it is, but it is also very wooden and stilted with a wildly wavering tone that never seems to know whether it wants to be taken seriously.

I suspect there may have been a disagreement at some point, maybe between the director and producer, or some other entities, surrounding the tone and content of the film, wherein one party wanted to make a camp, slapstick farce, while the other wanted to make an involved, convoluted whodunnit, and they had to strain to meet in the middle; and if that isn’t the case, then it certainly feels like it was.

The inconsistent tone is what kills the film from out of the gate, as you don’t know what level of satire the film is operating on. It uses a lot of clichés, but is it using them in a way to poke fun at itself? Or just using them because its writers didn’t know any better. This is the thing with self-referential comedy, the audience needs to know what the film is trying to convey, otherwise, we get lost in the tone of the film.

Take, for example, Airplane! This was a film made on the back of an influx of plane-based disaster films, to lampoon their content, it’s brilliantly done and executed in such a way that the audience is in on the joke and fully aware that it’s being played for laughs. Clue could have been something similar, but it fails to commit fully to its ridiculous nature to be seen as such.

Which is why as a whole, the film completely falls flat, tying itself in knots trying to make a convoluted plot seem engaging when really all its doing is creating troubles for itself. No time is spent on character development, we’re given no reason to care about the deaths portrayed, because we don’t care about the characters.

It’s not for lack of trying either, the cast is doing their absolute best to make the tripe they’ve been saddled with work, hamming it up and chewing the scenery to the best of their ability. It again brings into focus just how much of a mess this film is, the actors are there working their comedic muscles until they’re about to drop off, while the film still has pretensions of rivalling an Agatha Christie tale.

I feel as though Clue is a movie that would have seemed aged and worn out when it was first released, never mind in the cursed year 2020, bringing its flaws into even sharper focus. It’s safe to say the years have not been kind, even if it wasn’t considered all that good in the first place.

Not only does it seem antiquated, but it’s a waste of good talent too. Tim Curry seems to be enjoying hamming it up (which is why we all love him in the first place) and Christopher Lloyd is also along for the ride, not that his character is anything consequential, he’s just there, proving once again just what a waste of good celluloid this film is.

I know it’s from a different era, but I fear this film never really stood a chance with the script it had. Wooden, inconsistent and just generally bloody awful, it feels like the work of writers who’d never attempted comedy or mystery before but were convinced that it couldn’t be that hard.

Not funny enough to be a spoof, not thrilling enough to be a mystery, Clue is just a stone-cold dud that misuses its talented cast in the most egregious of ways. There’s a good reason people prefer to remember Rocky Horror or IT when they think of Tim Curry. A film killed by the writer, with a typewriter, in the study.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Review

Imagine my surprise, dear readers, when I read a few months ago that a new film starring the Borat character was in the pipeline. I had assumed the once ubiquitous character was long-dead, a mere shadow of what had been possible, but I was wrong.

You can’t particularly blame me for thinking this; after all, a film like Borat is only really something you can do once before your cover is blown. Once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s nigh-on impossible to get back in, and Sasha Boren Cohen himself has said as much in the past.

He’s also not a character that would fit well with modern sensibilities, to put it mildly. I still wonder to this day how he got away with half of the stuff he did back in the first film, and I find it even more amazing that people are willing to play along with him again fourteen years later.

It makes me wonder at what level of self-awareness the participants of this film were operating at. The first time around it’s reasonable to assume that people would be caught off guard, but now? Nearly a decade and a half since the first film? Surely you must have to be in on the joke to some extent? Either that or I’m giving Americans entirely too much credit.

So, it’s been fourteen years since Borat first journeyed to the ‘US&A’, and this film shows the aftermath of that. He’s punished for disgracing his country, sentenced to hard labour in a gulag. But he’s offered a chance at redemption by delivering a gift to Vice-President Mike Pence so that the Kazakh leader can become friends with Donald Trump.

The above is roughly all I can let on without ruining the film for you, and it is, as you would expect, as mad as a box of frogs.

As anarchic and bizarre as Borat has always been, there has also always been an undercurrent of satire to his deployment; his characters highly-exaggerated bigotry is a carefully-constructed smokescreen to allow others to feel comfortable about their own bigotry, thus exposing the inherent ridiculousness of them. After all, if they believe the same things as Borat, who we are encouraged to see as a moron, then how can we possibly take them seriously?

Its clever subversive satire is hidden, however, beneath the folds of its juvenile humour and ridiculous characters, but it is there.

In the times we currently live in, it is becoming increasingly difficult to satire political figures. While it might seem like it should be easy given the divisive figures currently holding power; because of their pronounced characters, it makes them extremely difficult to lampoon. Donald Trump is a joke by himself, he doesn’t need a satirist to come along and amplify that. But along with these characters, we have a background of societal tension that is more volatile than ever, and that’s where Borat slips into place.

Amidst all the madness of the world, the pandemic, the constant bubbling tension, and the over-grown man-children currently holding office, a perfect atmosphere for Borat to thrive has developed. Against the backdrop of the pandemic and far-right conspiracies, he doesn’t seem as out of place as he normally would.

For me, the humour to be found in Borat films have always been how the world reacts to this strange man, purportedly from a foreign country with none of our usual social norms, and how his ignorant bigotry is used as justification for their deliberate bigotry. He lulls unaware people into a false sense of security, like the rodeo scene from the first movie, for example.

Well, this film has several similar moments in which the absurdity of his character leads to certain people letting their guard down and being caught out deliciously. It’s amazing he hasn’t been found out and killed by now, but you have to applaud the bravery of his efforts in making horrible people look bad.

Bear in mind that all of this is absolutely intentional too. What with the film releasing directly before the US Election (AKA the longest five days in history) and with its crosshairs aimed directly at the Trump administration, Boren Cohen brought this character out of mothballs because it takes ridiculous characters to show up ridiculous people, and that’s exactly what he did.

The main plot of the film revolves around his daughter, their relationship, and his plan to give her as a ‘gift’ to Mike Pence. Honestly, I could take or leave this aspect of the film. There is only one string to the joke it’s trying to tell, and it already used it plenty of times last time. What I did like about it though was the gradual shift in their relationship, and the performance of Maria Bakalova who, as Borat’s daughter Tutar, was just as dedicated to the character as Cohen. She must have been to keep the act up in the situations they find themselves in. She’s the subject of the joke at the start, but by the films conclusion, both the character and her relationship with Borat are quite charming and almost sweet.

The real appeal of the film for me though was the instances of Borat messing with people, in much the same way he did before.

While I had thought it impossible to achieve the same effect again now the character is known, he somehow managed to trick people again. Culminating in him staying with a few far-right conspiracy theorists and writing a song about Obama. I remain unconvinced that these two guys weren’t actors who were in on the joke, but apparently, they weren’t, and that just makes it all the funnier.

That having been said, however, it is a film that is destined to age poorly. By making the pandemic and Trump a key factor in its satire, it timestamps the movie. In a few years, when the world has (hopefully) moved on from both of those things, this will serve as nothing more than a time capsule; and while the first film had a few topical elements itself, it was broad enough to ensure its staying power, because it focused on the craziness of Borat, and America, something that will never change.

All in all, then, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doesn’t pull up trees like its predecessor. Its jokes are a bit staler, but its ability to use the character as a conduit for satire remain rapier-sharp. It may not be the wittiest film or raise as many laughs as before, but it does expose the inherent ridiculousness of political cults with its tongue firmly in its cheek. It probably won’t have a long legacy, but it will stand as a reminder of this strange and turbulent time.

The Lost Boys Review

So last week I reviewed a film from the 80s considered by many to be a classic, and may have dropped hints in that review that it wasn’t my favourite period; and so to carry on that point, one of my correspondents (thank you, Ian) sent me this film to review.

I knew of this film before watching it. I had frequently been told that it was a film I should watch, given its cult nature and unique appeal, but in all honestly, it just never appealed to me.

As I’ve already said, the 80s aren’t my favourite period by any stretch of the imagination I think it’s an incredibly over-exposed era at this point, and nostalgia for it only ever seems to grow, given the rate of re-releases and remasters of films from the era, and The Lost Boys seems to be one such film that tickles people’s nostalgia gland.

The film sees two boys move with their mother to Santa Clara, the so-called ‘murder capital of the world’. Before too long, the older sibling is drawn into the wrong crowd, the blood-sucking kind of crowd, and the younger of the two must recruit two local kids to fight the vampires head-on.

Allow me to disappoint you right out of the gate readers, I really didn’t think too much of this film.

I can understand its appeal as a product of its time, it’s relatively stylish and the musical choices are inspired, but beyond that, I found nothing compelling about it.

I think its biggest mistake was trying to juggle two different genres without committing wholeheartedly to be either. It tries to be a comedy in some parts and then tries a bit of horror, but both aspects fall flat as it never feels like it’s committed to either side and subsequently comes off half-baked. It wasn’t funny enough to be classified as a true comedy, and neither was it disturbing enough to call it a horror, despite its best efforts to be both.

I suppose in some ways it tries to have its cake and eat it too, with its tone wavering drunkenly between camp and serious, I feel it really could have done to take itself a touch less seriously, as its straight-faced aspects make its camp nature look even more laughable.

Mind you, I suppose we have to expect camp from a film directed by the late Joel Schumacher, and it wasn’t the obstructive kind as seen in his Batman films had it perhaps leant more heavily into that aspect, it may have been more enjoyable, as it stands though, the film is fairly dour and unexciting.

The story might have even worked if the characters were more likeable, sadly they all sit on the ‘annoying’ side of the 80s character spectrum, and if they aren’t annoying they’re just plain dull.

Take the vampires for instance, for the whole film, we’re expected to buy them as the super-cool bad guys, but besides Kiefer Sutherland’s character, none of them gets any semblance of personality, they just stand there and sneer constantly, dressed like they’d all been covered head to toe in glue and kicked through Hot Topic. How are we supposed to see them as threats when we only get to see them as vampires once? Furthermore, their threadbare characterisation makes them impossible to care about, they’re all just paper cut-outs, backgrounds for Kiefer Sutherland.

The non-vampires don’t come off much better, to be honest. Admittedly, I have only ever seen Corey Feldman in this and The Goonies but seeing this made me question how he ever got cast so much in the 80s. He’s a charisma vacuum with all the acting nous of a stale loaf of bread, and the other Corey, Corey Haim, wasn’t much better, he spends the runtime shouting his lines and being an annoying, aloof little jerk; and this is the character we’re supposed to sympathise with I remind you, by the end of the film I was half hoping the vampires would win, but I didn’t care about them either.

That pretty much sums up my feelings towards The Lost Boys. Just an overwhelming sense of apathy. I didn’t care for the characters, the story was messy and unengaging, and if you’re not into the 80s sense of charm, then you’re not welcome to The Lost Boys party. All of this I could stomach if the film had any semblance of self-awareness about it, but as I’ve said, it doesn’t. It’s not completely straight-faced, but it doesn’t embrace its ridiculousness like it needed to to make the film work. By refusing to commit to a tone it just seems wishy-washy and muddled.

I know I’m probably in a minority here as The Lost Boys seems to be fairly well-regarded amongst a certain portion of cinema-goers, maybe not a universal appeal, but definitely as a cult feature, and to me, it’s just not got the sense of fun that epitomises most other cult films, it’s not even a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ film, as it’s fairly well put together and is at the very least well designed and visually engaging, it just fails to bring any of that engagement into its narrative.

In conclusion, then, I was very disappointed by The Lost Boys. I wanted to be proved wrong on my stance on the 80s, but this film just serves to re-affirm those negatives views I had going in. It’s not even terrible enough for me to hate it that much, I just didn’t care, and that’s the worst kind of reaction to have to any film.

A Look Back at October

October was a considerably busier month than September, it’s fair to say. With Halloween approaching at the end of the month, I made a conscious decision to look at as many horror titles as I could, or failing that, films with a tangential link to Halloween at least.

I actually think I started enjoying reviewing films in a home setting a lot more this month with a clear mission in mind. The past few months have been difficult with very few or no trips to cinemas. With a cinema, I had a focused time in which to watch a film, it gave me a time frame and a purpose, when I’m at home, the tendency to procrastinate takes over and it can take me forever to finally watch something.

So it’s fair to say that I’ve got some wind back in my sails this month, thanks in no small part to my boyfriend, and his instance that we watch films together (it’s him that has picked the vast majority of my recent films to review) it means I have a more regular schedule once more, so you can all thank (or blame) him for my increased output.

But it hasn’t been all positive. This month saw the closure once again of Cineworld cinemas across the country, leaving many members (myself included) slightly adrift, not to mention leaving many staff with an uncertain future. I wrote a poem about it in a rare occurrence of my two lives as a writer meeting together, which is featured earlier in this book.

Film of the Month: Halloween (1978) – Directed by John Carpenter

It was a close call between this and Zombieland, and I almost plumped for the latter, but in terms of looking for a Halloween film, you can’t go far wrong with the film named after the day itself. It is an early example of Carpenter’s skill as a director, and has a fantastically tense atmosphere. A real classic.

So, we now only have two months left of this odd, ever-confusing year, and hopefully we can have a few months of Christmas cheer now that Halloween is out of the way. I’ll be looking at streaming films I may have missed in the last few months, to catch up before I launch into some Christmas reviews, if that sounds like your thing, then stay tuned!

Zombieland Review

There are few things in popular culture more over-done than Zombies. They’ve been everywhere for what seems like an eternity, be it video games, films, books; nowhere is same from the shambling horrors, and like many people, I am truly sick of the sight of them.

There can’t be that many things left to do with them after all this time, I can even name at least one zombie-based musical (it’s called Zombie Prom, and it’s terrible) and yet they never seem to go away.

All you can really do with zombies these days is lean into just how ridiculously omnipresent they are, you certainly shouldn’t take them seriously anymore, and this brings me neatly to the subject of today’s review: Zombieland.

Zombieland is, as you can probably guess, set in a world overrun by vampires. Only kidding, of course, it’s an America that is over-run with the undead, and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) believes he may be the last survivor in the country, indeed he has devised a list of rules for his continued survival, but this is soon proven untrue when he comes across Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and the two set off across Zombieland together.

It is one of those instances of a film taking me by surprise, to the extent of me genuinely belly-laughing at certain parts, and audibly saying: ‘this is great!’ to my boyfriend, who was watching with me at the time. A film rarely makes me giddy with joy, but this is a movie that accomplished that.

My thought process at the start of the movie was more along the lines of: ‘Oh great, another zombie film.’ but by the end, I was wanting to watch the sequel straight away, so that’s as good an indicator as any as to my enjoyment.

The films greatest success is in its ability to not take itself seriously in the slightest (well, for the most part) by making its cliche setting seem funny as well as dangerous it gives itself more leeway to use the tired setting as a launching pad, and it runs with its setting too.

Despite this, however, it still manages to make the threat of the zombie seem dangerous, simply by their sheer number and ravenous nature, they’re still a threat, despite the light-hearted tone.

The characters are a mixed bag of misfits thrown together by a hostile environment, all with conflicting personalities, who all eventually grow on each other as time goes on, it sounds cliche, and it probably is, but there’s a few nice moments of character justification for this.

The film chooses its moments to be more serious very wisely, using them as a way to develop the characters making sure they’re not wasted or throw-away. The highlights of these moments being Tallahassee’s reveal later in the film that puts his character’s actions into perspective, as well as the tender relationship built between Columbus and Wichita (Emma Stone) who is picked up along the way, with her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

As for the films funnier moments, there are very few misses. The absolute peak of the film is, fittingly, its finale. As the gang run around killing zombies in a fairground, riding rollercoasters as they go, shotgun in hand. This is a spectacular finale to a hilarious film that had me beaming from ear-to-ear with each new set-piece.

It’s a film that will leave you with an overwhelming feeling of unbridled joy if I were American I’d have been hollering at the screen, but as a reserved Englishman, I instead wore a Cheshire Cat-style grin and felt thoroughly entertained.

As I said, the characters are nothing new, but they have a certain flair in their presentation. Woody Harrelson is at his chaotic best as the slightly unhinged leader of the group, armed with a massive gun and balls the size of space hopper (metaphorically, of course, you should consult your doctor if your balls in any way resemble space hoppers) he takes on the hordes with unbridled glee, and searches madly for the last Twinkie, in the same way a firefighter looks for survivors in a burning building.

Eisenberg and Stone are also wonderful in their roles, with Eisenberg’s characters list of rules giving the film the fresh through-line it needs to stand apart from the crowd; and the two characters eventual romance just adds a nice cherry on top of all the character-building the movie had done.

The film also contains perhaps the greatest cameo appearance by anyone not named Stan Lee that adds another self-referential wrinkle to the comedy of the film. For those that know the film, they’ll know what I’m talking about.

As for the films look, it’s visceral and raw with plenty of blood and guts to sell the danger and true horror of the shuffling monsters, although it isn’t used egregiously, only when it is necessary.

The only big criticism I have of the film is its use of special effects. In places, it was blindingly obvious, and practical effects would have done a much better job. I can only be slightly miffed at this though, as the film didn’t have an extravagant budget, it made do with what it had, even if it did look a bit out of place.

In conclusion, then, no film with zombies in it has ever made me laugh as much as Zombieland did. It’s set pieces were fresh and exhilarating, its characters fun and varied, and most importantly, it wasn’t afraid to look stupid to elicit laughs. It is the purest comedy film I’ve seen in a long time, and it even has the hints of horror with the inclusion of zombies to make it a timely Halloween treat. A bloody great time.

The Karate Kid (1984) Review

There are many films that some consider ‘classics’ that I have never watched, not for any reasons of bias, I just haven’t managed to get around to them, and other things have been competing for my attention. This is what the recent lull in cinema releases is allowing me to correct, with no new releases, I can leisurely check out what people say I’ve been missing.

Of all the films missing from my watchlist, there is a lot from the 80s. I have never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for instance. I believe there was an overabundance of high-school comedies in that era, so much so that a lot of them fuse in my mind.

One such 80s staple that I had never sat down to watch in its entirety up until recently was, as the title of this review suggests, The Karate Kid, the archetypal sports movie of the era, with all the trappings and finery that brings with it, those being that of an underdog and his tormentor.

For those unfamiliar with the film’s plot, here is a summary: Daniel (Ralph Macchio) is uprooted from his life in New Jersey when his mother gets a new job at a computer company in LA. He soon raises the ire of local bully and top karate prospect, Johnny (William Zabka). After catching a beating one night at the hands of Johnny and his friends, Daniel is saved by Mr Miyagi, a handyman at his apartment block, who happens to be a karate master. He soon takes Daniel under his wing to teach him the ways of karate and self-defence.

The Karate Kid is, on the surface, an underdog sports tale. I’m sure you can think of other examples of this particular archetype, but it is hiding a surprising amount of depth below this surface of well-worn cliche.

It’s romantic in parts, it can also be terribly sad, and more importantly, it’s a great character study of people from totally different background, and how they are different, but also similar.

For instance, what we know about Mr Miyagi is eked out over the film’s run-time. We don’t know anything about this mysterious handyman from first impressions, he’s very much secondary in the stories set-up, pushed to the back of the audience’s mind until the time is right for him to come to the forefront, and even then, there’s more to learn about this quiet, unassuming, and yet still defiant Karate master.

His relationship with Daniel is also extremely well-played and organic. They don’t instantly gel, and there’s a culture clash there, but their mutual respect grows as their training commences, and a real fondness between them is evident. They develop an almost father-son-type connection, and it’s well-paced enough to not seem like a huge narrative jump.

I was very impressed from the outset by Ralph Macchio too, he exuded confidence and charisma that is rare in young performers, and this lends itself well to the chemistry he develops with other actors, namely Elisabeth Shue (who plays love interest Ali) and, more importantly, Pat Morita.

Which brings me nicely onto Mr Miyagi, who is, in my opinion, the films true star. A character whose development is so well crafted and finely paced as this is hard to come by, he goes from mysterious handyman to whom the characters pay no mind to a tragic father-figure who is central to the characters lives. He’s a character with a tremendous heart behind him and is ably brought to life by the exceptional Pat Morita.

With that being said, there is a part of me that thinks this character would be a lot different if written today. While his presentation as an Asian-American isn’t played for laughs (and there’s even a memorable scene where he terrifies a few racists) it is still somewhat uncomfortable to think of his characters dialogue and accent being written by a white writer, but this is somewhat unavoidable in this situation, it was a different time, after all.

In my Halloween review last week, I gave it the benefit of the doubt for using certain horror tropes because it was the movie that practically invented half of them, and I’m tempted to extend the same benefit to this film, it wasn’t the film that outright invented the tropes and cliches it uses, but it probably helped define them.

Among the plethora of 80s teen movie bullies, there isn’t much to distinguish Johnny from the rest, he’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not all that memorable either. It can be argued that he is shaped by his ruthless sensei in the Cobra Kai dojo, who we don’t see enough of for my liking, or see much of his motivation as to why he teaches his students as he does, his methods seem to fly in the face of everything karate stands for, but this isn’t explored.

I wasn’t expecting much of this film, my cynical mind tells me to be wary of films that are so universally beloved, as I’ve said before, and although this film can’t be said to occupy the same space as Citizen Kane it belongs to an era that people seem to romanticise and as such I’m always on my guard against overestimating the virtues of such films.

Despite this, however, I enjoyed The Karate Kid. It had great performances, likeable characters, and an enduring and iconic story that manages to never stray too far into cliche. It’s a great example of 80s film-making at its best along with its contemporaries Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club and it just goes to show that some films are well-remembered because of their quality, even if viewed through the red-tinted goggles of nostalgia.

Memories of Murder Review

There’s been an ignition of interest this year surrounding the films of Bong Joon-ho, this appetite has been cooled-down somewhat by the world events unfolding all around us in recent months, but it seemed like a turning point when he took this years Oscars by storm.

I had floated the idea around that time that his success might see a breakthrough in foreign-language films being embraced in English-speaking territories, such was the way that the US & UK took to Parasite. It can be argued that no Asian film has created that much buzz in the Western world since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and arguably not even then.

Like many others, I was one such reviewer who found myself enamoured with Parasite and as a result, have made an effort to watch Bong’s back catalogue, indeed, I have catalogued my views on the ones I have subsequently seen on this very site.

But one release evaded my attempts for most of this year, his second directorial effort Memories of Murder. 

At the time of its release, it barely had a profile outside of Asia, and such the demand didn’t previously exist for its wide release. There was a DVD version in the West, but it’s extremely hard to come by, or expensive, so it made sense to give his breakthrough release further big-screen exposure after his subsequent successes.

Based off a real-life serial killer case in a small Korean province, the film follows the three detectives working the case. Two of which are hard-nosed rural cops who like to beat confessions out of suspects and the other is a more savvy city cop brought in from Seoul to help out. Their styles and personalities clash, but eventually, they start to piece together the mystery.

Memories of Murder starts with a difficult case to adapt, as, at the time of its release*, the real-life murders this film is based on were unsolved. Making this a serial killer mystery with no conclusive ending. The ‘big reveal’ moment of a whodunit can’t happen, and on one hand, that’s a brave choice to lean into that fact, but it can also lead to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Whatever you get out of the films ending will depend entirely on your tastes. For those who like their stories to have a definitive ending, this probably won’t be the movie for you, but if you have a tolerance for an ambiguous ending, then you might get some satisfaction from the conclusion.

The film as a whole shares a lot of DNA with a few other Bong films. It has a subplot within it that’s similar to Mother, even down to some of the scenes being more or less carbon copies of each other. I’m imagining this was done as a homage in Mother to this film, his first big success in his home country, I would like to think it wasn’t just lazy recycling of ideas because he has shown that he’s above that, and as I say, it’s a subplot within the main narrative, it isn’t a key part, per se.

Then there’s also the lead actor Song Kang-ho, whom you may recognise from both Snowpiercer and Parasite, in the latter he played the father of the lower-class family, Kim Ki-taek.

Som comparisons with his later work are rife, but how does it measure up? Well, of all the films of Bong Joon-ho’s I’ve watched, this is the one I’ve connected with the least. It is obvious that he has something special about him, but he’s very much still finding his feet.

It could also be a case of this film was never intended to have the mass-market appeal of his later films. As I say, this film was largely unknown outside of Korea, so it stands to reason that he made a film that makes sense in that culture, that may not translate well with Western audiences. This feels like the most ‘foreign’ of his films, obviously, I know they are all foreign films, but this feels like it’s on a different cultural wavelength more than any of his other films I’ve watched, including Mother and that was fairly deeply entrenched in Korean society also, but still understandable to an outsider in ways that Memories of Murder isn’t.

The characters are erratic and unpleasant, and granted we are supposed to feel this way about a few of them, but I didn’t buy into the main detective’s change of character towards the end. The really interesting character arc belonged to Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) the city cop whose experiences in the countryside change him gradually until he becomes just like the brash cops he looked down his nose at earlier in the film, it’s the films best use of character development because it happens organically, through his frustration with the case, and his colleagues’ behaviour.

All these things being said, it is still a very well-made film. It shows flashes of the brilliance we now know Bong is capable of, but this seems like he was still honing his skills as a filmmaker. The subject matter is solid if handicapped by a lack of credible conclusion, and the direction and performances are stellar as usual, it just doesn’t connect with me as his other films have. Some of that I feel is down to the cultural differences, but some of it is also down to the film.

It has some incredibly strong moments, the best of these being a few extremely tense scenes where we observe the killer stalk his victim, on one memorable occasion popping up as a blur in the background as he advances, the film comes alive when it embraces these aspects, as well as delving into the investigation itself, which I felt they could have done more with, as opposed to spotlighting the violent detective and his habit of beating suspects, which happens one too many times for my liking.

In conclusion, then, I’m glad I have now seen this film, but I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to watch it again. Hints of the director’s brilliance are visible but obscured by unlikeable characters and a disarming habit of messing up the narrative with subplots that are never resolved. The evidence is here that Bong Joon-ho will become the director we now know him to be, but he wasn’t quite there at this time.

*In a twist of fate, just as Parasite was about to release, the murderer responsible confessed to the killings. However, he can’t be charged for them because Korea’s statute of limitations when the crimes occurred stood at 15 years. He was, however, already serving a life sentence for the murder of his sister-in-law.