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Get Snowed Under by Christmas Movies this Holiday Season

Love 'em, hate 'em or moderately tolerate 'em... Christmas movies are going to keep bubbling up around December. Cashing in on the commercialised holiday, which is about hope, peace and eggnog on the surface... the undercurrent seems to be about getting consumers to spend more in a bid to recover sales over a less than lucrative year. Cynical much?

While the subgenre has been explored with a dark comedy slant in Bad Santa and The Ice Harvest, it could quite easily be a David Lynch movie, where everything seems to be hunky-dory on a superficial level but as you sink below the surface... the ominous soundtrack tells you everything is not okay. Tinseltown's even named after one of the most iconic bits of Christmas tree decoration - a clear indication that it should get the Lynchland treatment. The festive season seems to be about excesses and over-indulgence, which is good if you're limited to popping the top button and vegetating on the couch but much more problematic when alcohol and roads blur together.

Perhaps the reason Christmas movies have become so abundant is quite simple. It's all about easy pickings and lazy afternoon movie fare. Filmmakers are essentially tying their star to a Christmas tree with a guaranteed cyclical resurrection just based on its thematic content and harvesting low-hanging fruit in the schmarmiest conditions - it's difficult to fail and who cares if you do.

This is what makes Father Christmas is Back, such an abysmal failure. While you'd be naive to think this would be the next Miracle on 34th Street being directed and produced by guys whose film credits include b-grade actioners starring latter day Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, it's a total misfire. Centred on the idea of an estranged father by the name of Mr. Christmas returning to his family in England over the Christmas holidays, it's already pushing things, as if the punny title uninspired the screenplay and consequential picture.

Uttering steaming piles of reindeer poop (say it like April Bowlby) in the form of dialogue that simply echoes what you already know about the characters based on their wardrobe, this inane drivel is actually bland enough to be offensive. Relying on the now tarnished cast to sell the jokes, it's the kind of comedy drama where comedy and drama only just factor in - dragged kicking and screaming to force the odd grimace from its audience by the only hopeful thing in Father Christmas is Back... the cast.

Never have so many name stars been embarrassed or failed to share their new movie's arrival. Unfortunately, the film doesn't go as far as Jim Jarmusch's zombie comedy, The Dead Don't Die, where Bill Murray and Adam Driver literally break character to acknowledge just how off the beaten track the film has gone. Whether Kelsey Grammer's living it up in a bar or counselling Kris Marshall in a church, there's a knowing and glassy look... one where as professional as they try to be, they know they're peddling bad lines with feeling for the pay check.

Who knows how much money changed hands for Kelsey Grammer and John Cleese to appear in this turkey of a Christmas movie? Granted they haven't been aiming for the lofty heights of Daniel Day-Lewis, but there must be a modicum of self-respect left... something in them that says, you know what - I've actually got a legacy to protect. In Hollywood, you're only as good as your last movie and while there has been some barrel-scraping... there must be a limit before you're shoveling snow.

Whether under contractual obligation or threat of death, many recognisable faces find themselves floundering about and trying to make the most of Father Christmas is Back. Playing brothers, it's a curious treat to see TV legends Cleese and Grammer from across the Atlantic rubbing shoulders... but the afterglow is as rich and rewarding as their fraternal bond and not felt in this instantly forgettable holiday movie.

Speaking of name stars... what ever happened to Elizabeth Hurley? While Hurley literally stormed the world in a Versace dress on the arm of Hugh Grant many moons ago, it seems as though the talent police were chasing her like Carmen Sandiego's dance with Interpol in the '90s. Serving Sara may have finally shown the limits of her abilities, but to her credit Hurley has remained a recognisable star... one whose presence is actually a credit to this half-assed Christmas schlock. She may only have cracked the nod because she did a movie with the producer once upon a time, but the film's spicier and more alluring based on her involvement - even if the biggest take away is how amazing she looks and notwithstanding the irony of her cleavage's substantial supporting role.

Elizabeth Hurley Father Christmas is Back

While Father Christmas is Back is desperately trying to be British, quaint and all things tea and scones, it's like they did their research watching a couple of Downton Abbey episodes. The homestead is impressive, a major plus in the film's favour as the burgeoning cast descend on this palatial country manor thing. However, the tone is all over the place... lacking the gentle ebb-and-flow and nuance of British comedy and going for broke with some outlandishly stupid comic scenarios.

Gathering another American actor besides Kelsey, the filmmakers cast April Bowlby... whose staple performance serves as a mascot for the film's somewhat cheesy and superficial quality. It's interesting to see her again after making a name for herself with a similar character in Two and a Half Men, making you wonder about her voice in a similar way to Megan Mullally from Will & Grace. When you add the spectacularly blonde Nathalie Cox to the line-up, it does seem as though the outdated tradition of leading lady film star looks still has sway. In their defence and based on the screenplay, it's difficult to decide if any character has specifically been underwritten.

Kris Marshall and Caroline Quentin, TV icons from My Family and Men Behaving Badly respectively, also seem to be there to stoke Father Christmas is Back's Britishness. It's amazing how much of the ensemble is British and still how shiny and sparkly it is... the film equivalent of bauble if you will. Thankfully it's harmless enough to remain in a space of soft targets and not turning Christmas into a JCVD action extravaganza... although his Van Damme's jack-in-the-box appearance would have come as a dull surprise and probably would've been better for it.

If the filmmakers wanted to improve the situation, they should have murdered someone. While the cast may have been secretly plotting to do this anyway, the in vogue Knives Out murder mystery genre would have given the merriment a fresh spin and not made it seem as lazy and phoned in as it currently is... is there a "Snyder Cut"? Perhaps murdering Father Christmas would've been the Christmas miracle this slapdash comedy drama and unintentional dramedy so desperately needed.

As it stands, it's a mindless and flatlining comedy with hints of drama... competently filmed with a decent film location and a blast-from-the-past ensemble... constantly restrained by its half-baked script and cash grab Christmas movie spirit. While it's difficult to always pick winners as a working actor... there must be some hints you're in for a bumpy sleigh ride. Father Christmas is Back is so bad that they released it on Netflix so that it would be quickly forgotten by the time the actual festive season kicked in. The cast are probably hoping to duck and run.

The Alienation and Genius of Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet'

Tenet is a challenging and frustrating film from writer-director, Christopher Nolan. Much like giving a Rubik's Cube a few twists and turns before finally giving up and turning it into a mocking ornament, this is probably most people's experience of Nolan's latest movie. The director has a knack for pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and seems to have a particular penchant for the flow of time in his stories as witnessed in Memento and Inception.

In this light, Tenet must surely be his boldest, most challenging and self-indulgent film to date, based in a single electron universe, where like its title suggests, time moves forward and backward through the process of inversion, toying with the Grandfather Paradox. See 'The Genius of Tenet' video (below) for a thorough investigation and insightful deconstruction.

This information isn't fully explained to audiences and there are only hints at what's actually going on with a scene involving a bullet being dropped and picked up. This is reinforced by scenes with action playing backwards and forwards simultaneously. The effects are very cool, even if borderline comical at times, keeping the story puzzle something of a secret.

The narrative progresses with a character simply known as Protagonist, played elegantly by John David Washington, moving in a linear fashion long enough to get a semblance of his one word mission and the story's main characters, doubling back on itself for us to realise that the characters have witnessed scenarios from different viewpoints in an alternate dimension.

Taking place in a "twilight world of international espionage", its vague premise and attempts to fight for the "survival of the entire world" aren't fully impressed, much like just how Inception works, sidestepping laborious explanations to try and prevent it from getting bogged down with technicality. Dealing with such hypothetical scenarios, nothing seems to be set in stone and being suspended in the air with so many questions about what we're seeing makes things seem rather inconsequential without a bevy of characters you've grown to care for or feeling part of this aloof and clinical environment.

Obviously, if Nolan over-explained the story it wouldn't be much fun and would feel like cheating. Being subtle and nuanced is his thing - he's an auteur after all, so it's much easier for the director to just serve it up without risking tripping himself up and landing in the terrain of spoilers. While this makes the nitty-gritty of the timeline fascinating to a select few who are into unlocking the secrets of sci-fi fantasy, it's more alienating as pure entertainment to others. This is the fine balancing act the contemporary great filmmaker walks, taking risks at a chance of greatness.

He's earned a place in the sun, so if anyone's allowed to just do what they please, he's certainly one of the top candidates. Much like letting David Lynch just unleash his creative genius in the form of a film or series, the same privilege can and should be awarded to Nolan. As convoluted as his film's plotting gets, crossing dimensions and trying to bend his audience's minds backwards, there's not really such a thing as a bad Nolan film.

Tenet fits into the category of almost, but not quite and watching explainer videos will definitely improve the viewing experience, making it easier to skip discovering some of these elements by fluke on the third or fifth viewing. The problem is that the detached film experience doesn't really prompt repeat viewings other than to unlock the puzzle or rewatch some of the grand action sequences.

Playing into the territory of Heat with some epic crime drama set pieces and rivalries, Tenet actually has a lot in common with Bond's panache and more recent sleek cinematography too. The strong science fiction element seems to have a Matrix appetite for interdimensional world-building, deja vu, duality and storytelling. Ironically, it was easier to understand The Matrix, a dilemma some university professors use as a classic example for building arguments. The stylish, high-end action thriller is as pristine as most of Nolan's movies are... a director who seems to be aiming for perfection.

Tenet is visually spectacular, immense and thought-provoking as a grandiose Nolan film, but it's also alienating, joyless and confusing. This duality is carried through by its stellar ensemble also including: Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and a strangely effective and distracting Kenneth Branagh. His Shakespearean background and more recent role as a director just make a fuzzy choice - probably intentionally there to break perceptions and timelines. While their performances serve their purpose, there's a deliberate attempt to downplay rather than charm.

While this may have been part of Nolan's plan all along and somehow linked to the passage of time in this world of Tenet, it doesn't add to the entertainment value. The unemotional videogame superficiality substitutes real connection with the actors, foregoing emotional contact points in favour of a flatline and rather soulless level of engagement, mostly appealing to the intellect and working on the level of eye candy. As intricate and tricky as Tenet seems, it's alienation limits immersion and its detached feel blunts emotional investment. It's an elegant and even breathtakingly beautiful film, yet this opulent and rather pretentious affair is designed almost entirely for Nolan's amusement as he tests the limits of his audience's loyalty and single-viewing film interpretation.

It may only be recommended for the most ardent Nolan fans, moviegoers who want mind-bending challenges to strike up a post-movie conversation or cinephiles who can focus on and simply appreciate the aesthetic audio-visual component of films. Tenet remains a puzzling film, which you will probably appreciate more on a repeat viewing, yet one that's so cold and uninviting it hardly seems worth it.

Soul-searching with 'Viva Dada'

Viva Dada
is an introspective documentary from filmmaker Matthew Kalil, featuring his inspirational friend and author Sjaka Septembir . The two were part of Kalil's first documentary Porsellynkas, a retrospective exploration of the legacy of a performance arts group whose notorious and free-spirited works captured some of the disillusionment around the Afrikaans identity of the time. Sticking closely along the lines of identity with a soul-searching quest around self-worth, Viva Dada sets about trying to recover a long lost book authored by Sjaka. Recalling his suicide attempt, this honest work spoke to people at the time of its release but was so underground that the few copies that were distributed become difficult to track down.

Viva Dada film

Loosely centred on the quest to find Viva Dada, working through a list of people who last had a copy or some form of contact with it, the duo make it their mission to interview or locate the people on their list. Revisiting old haunts in the process of unearthing the origins of Viva Dada, the documentary takes these creatives on a nostalgic tour of their childhoods, triggering dormant memories and emotions in the search. Admittedly not quite sure what the documentary is about, Kalil's open-handed approach begins with Sjaka turning the camera on him so that by way of gonzo journalism he too becomes the subject.

This free-flowing approach leads Viva Dada as Kalil is guided by feeling and mood rather than trying to adhere to a linear story line. Questioning beliefs in a reflective way, self-doubt and a series of false starts characterise the documentary as the men share intimate thoughts and memories. From small victories to suicidal thoughts, Viva Dada echoes the very spirit of Dadaism, a movement around happenings and found objects. Questioning the intrinsic nature and value of things, the movement had a blend of the absurd with a comical undertow. Viva Dada seems to move by way of feel and makes for an honest and challenging cinematic experience, which while full of questions around self-worth is mostly ironically funny. Tripping into special moments and even losing valuable takes, there's a fatalistic undercurrent to this melancholic film.

Sjaka comes across like a clown without make up, an idea that his hairstyle and expressions invoke. This is further impressed upon us by his blend of happy/sad as he jokes about and reminisces, culminating in him literally wearing a red nose. A doccie with a dual biographical slant, Viva Dada's outward perspective is inversed so that Kalil actually becomes the primary subject. Porsellynkas saw him adopt the behind-the-camera role of director and narrator, yet he takes a much more active role in this unofficial sequel. A charming and likable guy, his refreshing honesty reveals some of his triumphs and relative failures, charting his previous documentary, his screenwriting book 'The Three Wheels of Screenwriting' and his unfinished film about growing up in Table View.

Viva Dada film

Filming meditation, mini road trips, surf expeditions and suburban views, we get a raw semblance of their worlds with moody settings that echo the film's nostalgic and self-reflective ebb-and-flow. Viva Dada's novelty, subjects and unpredictability make it an entertaining film that finds inspiration in some of the darkest places. Not afraid to represent the shadowier, doubtful side of humanity it works against the natural order of modern entertainment. Complementing this rather spiritual quest with some magical drone footage, Viva Dada moves from eclectic to ethereal.

Shot on a shoestring budget, it echoes the indie spirit of Porsellynkas, reinforced by its soundtrack comprised of Afrikaans folk music from Caltex. Filmed in English and Afrikaans, it's a uniquely South African film that focusses on the existential crisis of its subjects, embedded in their hometowns and familiar environments. Touching on identity, white guilt and the disparities of living in a city like Cape Town, this heavy and somber mood permeates unapologetically. It's a truth-seeking documentary, an artistic and spiritual endeavour, which while constrained by its no-budget origins still has plenty to say without saying anything at all.

Moving from introductions to introspection and a form of inquisitive visual poetry, Viva Dada isn't for everyone. While its complex characters remain compelling, its see-what-happens approach work for and against... pushing the quest forward as the novel search continues, yet constrained by its own commentary on honest, heart-on-the-sleeve frustration. A deeply personal story, the scattershot come-what-may approach remains fascinating and checking in at 45 minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome. Viva Dada's searching spirit underpins this journey where self-understanding and greater awareness make a worthy spin-off for achievements not unlocked.

Viva Dada is premiering at the Vrystaat Arts Festival.

Local Mockumentary Daryn's Gym Set to Lift Spirits

Daryn's Gym is a mockumentary comedy from writer-director, Brett Michael Innes, a filmmaker best known for Sink and Fiela se Kind. While his heartrending dramas have come to characterise his genre range when it comes to narrative films, his latest offering is much lighter, probably a good thing considering the pandemic age. As Innes puts it, "the last thing anyone wants to watch right now is a movie about pain" hoping audiences will take solace in the lightness of his comedy much like smash hit TV series, Ted Lasso.

Set at a family gym in Johannesburg, the story follows Daryn Jr. who goes head-to-head with Funi, owner of a multi-national fitness chain. Playing into the classic David vs. Goliath dynamic, or Daryn vs. Goliath in this case, this upbeat and fun comedy sees Miller & Sons fall prey to the ruthless Stars gym as moles are sent in to infiltrate as dirty tactics come into play.

Daryn's Gym stars the easy-going and charming Clifford Joshua Young as Daryn Jr. in his film debut who found the experience to be truly life-changing. When he got the call to say that he'd secured the part, he was literally in a huge glass box doing promotion work at the V&A Waterfront and couldn't believe that an opportunity had finally arrived, saying that having Brett walk this road with him was "a dream come true".

Young's supported by a cast of local favourites including: Hlubi Mboya (I Am All Girls), Natasha Sutherland (Lioness), Deon Coetzee (Dust) and Siv Ngesi (Knuckle City). Produced by Paulo Areal, known for the hard-hitting SAFTA-winning drama Ellen, the duo have gathered some of South Africa's sharpest dramatic actors and are introducing some fresh rising talents.

Daryn's Gym Movie

While Innes admittedly says he "felt out of my depth at times", the critically-acclaimed filmmaker leaned back on his experience in drama to "always pursue truth over a punchline". Pivoting on this bubbly channel of entertainment, he hopes "that the film leaves viewers feeling a little lighter when the credits start to roll". Getting comedy right is much trickier than you'd expect and Daryn's Gym offers something fresh for local audiences who may not be all that familiar with a genre made famous by the likes of Christopher Guest and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Being set at a gym, there's a wealth of comedic scenarios to send up as you may remember from Brad Pitt's depiction in Burn After Reading and many sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Perfect Strangers. One of the tricks is to establish an air of sincerity and self-belief to help foster the right conditions for comedy to bloom. Getting the balance between earnest hilarity and more contrived scenarios is critical in establishing a silly-serious tone. As with The Office, the next step is crafting endearing characters.

Using documentary style camera shots as with Modern Family, it'll be interesting to see how Daryn's Gym fares in a time when the activity of "going to the gym" could use a shot in the arm and a touch of nostalgic magic. The trailer looks promising and whether it's a smash hit or not, there must be some potential for it to become the premise for a local TV series. Who knows? Maybe this little comedy is an undercover pilot.

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