Four years out, John Powell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is already a stone cold classic

how to train your dragon score john powell review

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a solid if not particularly groundbreaking sequel. But then again, neither is the original. How to Train Your Dragon‘s story isn’t all that exciting, and anyone taking notes can probably sketch out its trajectory. Bumbling teen Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) bends over backwards (and then more than breaks a leg) convincing the hostile vikings of Berk that their age-old enemy in dragons really aren’t so bad.

Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is the most vocal of his detractors and in hindsight, their father-son tension feels a touch overplayed in a Hollywood landscape filled with strained paternal relationships. But in adapting Cressida Cowell’s novels, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders aren’t trying to break ground. In fact, their modest aims hit most of their marks. The action is solid, voice actors (including a wonderfully bubbly turn from Craig Ferguson) put in strong performances, and Roger Deakins’ sallow coloration soaks Berk in ancient, fictional tradition. To make a reaching analogy of the enterprise, watching How to Train Your Dragon is a lot like eating a chicken pot pie. You know exactly what you’re in for and you’ll enjoy it anyway.

Having a killer orchestra serenading your dining experience certainly helps. Just four years out from its release, John Powell’s score is already a classic piece of film music. It’s one of the most dynamic pieces of traditional film scoring ever and among the best scores of the past 20 years period. (Judging from ClassicFM’s annual poll, I’m not alone on this either. h/t to Films on Wax.) The animation’s worn-in feeling embellishes a believable fantasy world, but Powell’s music ushers us into it. “This is Berk” sways like a lullaby to the sleeping village only to startle its folk awake with a dragon attack. Its rousing call to arms is one part chaos, one part regimen with a unison motive that Powell imbues with Eastern modalities. The film might feel self-serious in this moment were it not for its constant reliance on humor and digression, and Powell follows suit by dissolving into a mushy, ooey, gooey flourish mid-track, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hiccup’s crush on tomboy Astrid (America Ferrera) and a likely allusion to Tchaikovksy’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.

Powell’s work is much more than clever quips and musical nods, too, delivering the emotive backbone in Dragon‘s plotting. A slow, minor theme plays as Hiccup silently stews over whether to kill or save Toothless, a downed and injured dragon of the rare Night Fury variation. Later, “Forbidden Friendship” includes a performance in and of itself, setting forth the building blocks for Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship without the need for dialogue. A gentle fountain of bells simmer with a cool curiosity before the entire track bubbles upward to the momentum of propulsive strings, wistful flute, and an angelic choir. By the end of its four minutes, Hiccup and Toothless have become unlikely (and uneasy) friends, and the final resting notes feel like a revelation.

Maybe because this is one, and one told entirely through music. It isn’t that outlandish to suggest that a complete score, when paired with an audio-free cut, might make for a better How to Train Your Dragon. Don’t believe me?

Like “Forbidden Friendship,” “Test Drive” telegraphs a young boy and his dragon’s growing bond — this time, to a stronger, more evocative height. A grand, brass-heavy pronouncement widens as Toothless spreads his wings, at once realizing the possibilities of this pair as well as the possibilities of Cowell’s world. As an action sequence, Hiccup and Toothless’ “Test Drive” functions as a moment of trial-and-error, and Powell’s music is there for every bump and blunder along the way. Flurries of woodwinds and strings ricochet as the two graze skyward stones, and a tornado of trumpet-led brass follows the plummeting spin of a mid-flight mishap. Rewatching the sequence with sound effects and voices reveals very small additions to the stakes at hand, and Powell’s music makes the indirect case they’re wholly unnecessary.

Hiccup and Toothless more than survive their trial run, but Powell’s alchemy of wonderment and danger doesn’t dilute the latter ingredient for family-friendly animation. In “Ready the Ships,” viking ships mobilize to find the fabled dragons’ nest. A low Isengardian boom plays with bagpipes and Dragon‘s main theme is saddened but no less bold. Later, when Stoick’s fleet arrives to claim the crown jewel in their bloodlusting conquest, trickling notes signal the crumbling mountainside lair and the trickling fear that something isn’t right. (They’re right to fear on account of “giant freaking dragon.”)

Powell is constantly returning to and embellishing his themes, too. “The Kill Ring” pushes clusters around Dragon‘s main theme, and “Battling the Green Death” calls back to a familiar downward movement as Toothless plummets to the bottom of the sea. This busy-ness might become jumbled in lesser hands, but Powell doesn’t trade in strict character motives, and his shirking character themes in favor of an adaptable emotional language makes How to Train Your Dragon feel united, an extension of Hiccup’s worldview that we ought to share our world and understand things beyond ourselves.

How to Train Your Dragon‘s score maintains an insatiable momentum, even above the narrative’s own lulls. The music feels like it’s constantly building to something, and when the title card finally hits before the end credits, we’ve only just arrived.

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Belated thoughts on Nicolas Cage in ‘Community’ S5/E2 “Introduction to Teaching”

Community- Season 1

In the second episode of its fifth season, Community featured a sub-plot involving a great deal of Nicolas Cage. As a result, I feel obligated to write about it. My obligation is belated. I am aware Community S5/E2 “Introduction to Teaching” doesn’t count as a Nicolas Cage film. I’m doing this anyway. Apologies.

With the gang having re-enrolled back into Greendale Community College, several study group members enroll in a two-day film studies course on one, Sir Nicolas Cage. The course, led by Kevin Corrigan’s thoroughly plussed film Professor Professorson, aims to investigate a single premise: Is Nicolas Cage good or bad? Short of a warning against shotgunning Cage films in marathon-styled succession, a warning Abed will of course ignore, there’s little else involved in the class. ‘Watch five movies. Report back to me.’ With the exception of Abed, everyone else seems resigned to failure in their assignment; classifying a career as bonkers and bipolar as Cage’s within a good-or-bad dichotomy just seems cruel. He’s hypnotizing in Leaving Las Vegas and gloriously naked in Adaptation., but with hammy turns in Next and (of course) The Wicker Man, you’re not sure what to think. And it’s best to not dwell on the impossible.

Naturally, Abed treats the professor’s warning as a challenge. Unlocking the essence of Cage seems like a kind of pop cultural forbidden fruit, one whose rind Abed must pierce to taste the sweet, sweet Cage nectar from within. When Abed takes a taste, the consequences are disastrous. His presumably frenzied 24-hour Cage-a-thon finds Abed stringing together film titles, Cage-isms, acting jags, frantic fits, and explosive outbursts in a rat’s nest of movie trivia. (Think Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, just with way less math.) It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect in a Nic Cage highlight reel. Like this one.

Community’s acknowledgment of what’s long been obvious to most of Reddit and Uproxx is forgivable, but its ambitions toward that subject matter are less so. Complexities and contradictions are part of Cage’s appeal, but Community reduces any nuance to easy punchlines within its B-plot. Shirley likens Cage to one of Hellraiser‘s cenobytes, both good and evil. The unexpected reference impresses Abed, and it should impress us, but Dan Harmon’s better than this. He’s been better than this within the same episode. Classifying Johnny Depp as the “bad” kind of good actor is spot-on, yet for a show that can offer such an incisive look into pop culture, the episode’s Cage material is one-dimensional, settling for a middling “it’s both” argument over nuance.

Danny Pudi’s Cage impression is solid but as Jack Black would sing, it’s low-hanging fruit, especially for a celebrity Abed once refers to as “one of pop culture’s great mysteries.” It’s easy to reference Windtalkers. The difficulty lies in doing something with those references. (adds Windtalkers to Netflix queue)

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #12: ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence review David Bowie

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

This final entry is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch. To paraphrase David Ehrlich on an episode of the CriterionCast, this isn’t even a Christmas movie. Apart from its title, very little in Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has anything to do with the Christmas holiday. Set in wartime Java in the mid-1940s, his is a picture filled with death, depression, and isolation. Through the struggles in a British POW camp however, Ôshima teases ideas of nostalgia and memory, neither of which exclusively belong to Christmas but both of which are indelibly part of it.

In the midst of World War II, Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) and a camp of British POWs are at the mercy of Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto). Turning himself over to Japanese forces in Java, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) arrives with a chip on his shoulder and plenty of fighting spirit, rebuking mercurial Sergeant Gengo Hara (Tikeshi Kitano) and the kangaroo court set to sentence him for his surprise attack on surrendered forces. Rebellious to a fault, Celliers injects instigation and fire into the hearts of the prisoners, forcing Colonel Lawrence’s middling empathy for both sides into partisanship.

Even given its tropical climate and palm trees, Ôshima coaxes a cold atmosphere out of sterile Japanese officers, cool nighttime blues, and incessant suffering. Figures hunch over in pain, whether from defeat, guilt, or in extreme cases, because of seppuku. When not directly fighting, the Japanese and British continue to battle through differing codes of honor. Hara and Yonoi preach the virtues of suicide in defeat, citing the way of the Samurai and bushido code. True to his pacifying tendencies, Lawrence understands this cultural divide, even as Celliers elects to stow dissent whenever possible. His antics indirectly frame Lawrence for smuggling in a radio to the camp. On Christmas Eve with both men on the brink of execution, they are exonerated by Hara. Hara, played with mirth by Kitano, fashions himself as a kind of “Father Christmas,” granting the two a pardon while drunk on charity and saké in good measure. Hara delights in wishing the two POWs yuletide greetings, and his added stay of execution is like a bitter present for the both of them.

It’s from Hara’s parting words that Ôshima takes his title, advancing four years past the surrender of Japanese forces to 1946, with Hara now facing his own execution for war crimes. Like Sakamoto’s fantastically anachronistic musical motif, Hara’s execution is a double mirror of Celliers and Lawrence’s own prior circumstances. Unlike Ôshima’s indulgent sequences exploring Celliers’ past — the flashbacks with Bowie, while evocative don’t match the rich colors in their emotions — Hara’s Christmas greeting is a recurring gesture, a sentimental au revoir tinged with respect and a longing simpler for divisions beyond hypocritical punishment.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

Way #6: Santa’s Slay

Way #7: Scrooged

Way #8: The Ref

Way #9: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas

Way #10: Rare Exports

Way #11: Meet Me in St. Louis

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #11: ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’

Meet Me in Saint Louis christmas movie review Judy Garland

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Despite beginning mid-summer in 1904, Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis feels like a Christmas movie because of its narrow emphasis on a single family: Having long enjoyed the pleasures of cushy middle-class St. Louis, the Smiths must deal with an impending move to New York, away from friends, suitors, and the home they’ve grown to love. It’s that problem that forms the core of this 1944 musical, but the disruption doesn’t actually occur until nearly halfway through. So much of Meet Me in St. Louis simply glides past day-to-day goings on. Eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer) can’t seem to tie the know while Esther (Judy Garland) aggressively pursues bachelor neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake) with little regard for adhering to courting norms. The youngest, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), is trying to fit in with the other kids still, pulling risky pranks on Halloween on the chance that it gets everyone to forget her morbid habit of burying her dolls.

Tensions escalate when Tootie comes home badly injured, (mistakenly) claiming John Truett ran her over, and Esther storms next door and confronts him. Even for the film’s most passionate character surrounded by corsets and 20th century temperance, it’s a fiery moment, but this is a picture that never gorges on its musical numbers. Minnelli plays with shot blocking and frames in moments of change — a long track on Tootie or a push in on Master Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) — but Roger Edens’ arrangements are provided static treatments. The Smiths’ living room breaks into song at a neighborhood party, with bodies hustling and bustling about to “Skip to My Lou,” but the frame remains largely unchanged, as if Minnelli wants this Missouri clan to contain just how much they are a part of their place.

The same holds true for Garland’s famous rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Esther sings to comfort an upset Tootie on Christmas Eve. Minnelli strips down the elements in his frame to basics, relying on nothing more than a two-shot and Garland’s vocal chords to do the lifting. It’s a wise gamble, as Garland wraps the holiday tune in a palpable sadness. Although the Smith family’s move to New York promises fresh beginnings and new opportunities, they’ll still be “miles away” from St. Louis. It’s a somber and reflective moment in a film often filled with poppier ditties like the jaunty, fun “Trolley Song.” The Smith family may sing together, but it’s Garland’s solo number that reinforces their familial bonds — even in the midst of displacement, especially around the holidays.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

Way #6: Santa’s Slay

Way #7: Scrooged

Way #8: The Ref

Way #9: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas

Way #10: Rare Exports

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #10: ‘Rare Exports’

Rare Exports movie christmas review netflix

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

The likes of Black Christmas (and the far less successful Jack Frost) introduce raging maniacs to Christmas, reversing merriment and wonder with gory visions of murder and morbidity. Jalmari Helander’s Finnish language slow burn Rare Exports presents a novel approach to those same ends, entertaining the idea that the very mythology of Santa Claus has been misunderstood for hundreds of years. Kris Kringle isn’t a hokey ball of joy who rewards good children with presents. He tortures the bad ones as a wintery harbinger of vengeance and extreme corporal punishment.

If this ret-con strains credulity, fear not, because it’s prefaced by a gradual setup and an icy, drawn-out atmosphere. Two boys, Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Jusso (Ilmari Järvenpää), come upon an excavation site at the mountain adjacent to their small village where a foreign company, SubZero Inc., appears to have tracked the location of the original, demonic Santa. What follows is a slow reveal, trickling details of a murdered herd of reindeer — reindeer which three of the village’s men planned to sell for big bucks — and the capture of a gnarled and frail old man sporting nothing but a long, whispy beard and a large potato sack. When Pietari tells the village’s men these “new developments” regarding Santa’s ghastly proclivities, he’s brushed off and dismissed for spouting childish nonsense. It isn’t until the old man attacks one of the villagers that the men are finally on edge. When SubZero’s chairman, Mr. Greene (Jonathan Hutchings), comes looking to chopper out his prized Saint Nick, the men strike a deal with the mogul, unaware that the silent old man they’ve captured isn’t Santa but one of many of his “helpers” who snatch up the naughties for Santa’s sacrificial eating habits.

There are few genuine scares in Rare Exports, but Helander opts for a classier avenue for thrills, relying on suspense, a loose “countdown to Christmas” structure and a keen withholding of context to maximize the power of his climax. Enclosed in SubZero’s warehouse of operations is a giant ball of ice, with two protruding horns suggesting the company has managed to dig up Santa Claus after all. When the remainder of Santa’s “helpers” come looking for their master, Helander’s chilly, somber atmosphere explodes into chaos and blood as “naughty” folks are decapitated and maimed via surgical tactics from the evening shadows. Drawing from the adventurous tone borne out of dark mythologies in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Helander nails a murkier “Indiana Jones” vibe — a final shot of shipping crates containing dozens of captured Santa “helpers” more than recalls the Ark of the Covenant’s uncertain fate. So much of the director’s vision (here based on a short film by Helander and his brother Juuso) is tuned and crafted for maximum suspense that a re-introduction of Santa via Pietari simply reading old books feels sloppy and circumstantial. Still, Rare Exports earns its title’s adjective for a wholly unique twist and a clever incorporation of Helander’s idea into modern Christmas tradition. Just be sure to check the beard on the next mall Santa you happen upon before getting too close, eh?

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

Way #6: Santa’s Slay

Way #7: Scrooged

Way #8: The Ref

Way #9: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #9: ‘A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas’

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas review movie stoner John Cho Kal Penn claymation

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

With its gratuitous 3D effects (including loads of CGI pot smoke), A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas definitely feels like another entry in the stoner franchise. Consider the low humor, munchies, and plenty of Neil Patrick Harris (once again, reprising his man-whoring caricature) as damning pieces of evidence. The third installment even ups the ante, anticipating stoner expectations with psychedelic WaffleBots, newspaper headlines that explode like motion comics, and even a full-on claymation sequence. But how much is this a Christmas joint?

That a franchise like Harold and Kumar could A) actually be a franchise and B) stumble into its own mythology is a tough burger to bite, but for the less stoner-inclined, it’s been six years since the events of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Harold (John Cho), now sober, is a successful Wall Street business type while Kumar’s (Kal Penn) failed his medical profession, gaining twenty pounds and a gnarly breakup beard while toking away in grimy, stoner solitude. Oh, and “NPH” is presumed dead after he’s shot down by a gang of angry prostitutes. Not exactly rosy stuff. Thankfully the holidays should bring some warm back into everyone’s spirits — even if A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas is set in the middle of the Occupy protests and the aimless Kumar’s just learned he’s fathered a child.

In wholly expected fashion, Kumar crashes a mall santa’s (Patton Oswalt) gig looking for a Christmas Eve weed hookup, and the pair blaze up in Oswalt’s “sleigh” while trading names of punny holiday strands like “Rudolph the Red-Eyed Reindeer” and “It’s a Weederful Life.” Kumar’s not having any of it, wondering why everything’s gotta be related to Christmas. (for the record, the Jewish schoolboys bought up all the “Hanukkah Hash” already.) Kumar may be a scrooge, but Harold’s in the full swing of Christmas trappings, going for broke on lawn ornaments and lights in the hopes of impressing his wife’s (Paula Garcés) intimidating father (Danny Trejo), who just so happens to be a Christmas nut; growing his own Christmas firs each year is but a taste of how serious he is about this stuff. Harold’s serious too, though — as he might put it, a prim and proper “adult” — and his weekend hinges on impressing his in-laws. Things get a little awkward when Kumar shows up at his doorstep to return a package, mysteriously addressed to Harold when the pair still lived in the same dingy apartment.

Like in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the story pitches a lot of crap at its tightly wound “square” counterpart, and also like the original, Harold eventually snaps under the pressure. Out all night chasing after an elusive “perfect tree” to replace the one Kumar burns down is a weak MacGuffin, and all the ugly Christmas sweaters in the world couldn’t make a holiday nut out of Danny Trejo’s rock solid bad ass persona. Likewise, Kumar cruises by on the knowledge that he could pursue a profession in the medical field — he resuscitates a concussed and bleeding Santa Claus after Harold shoots him out of the night sky — but he’d rather just kick back and smoke weed all day. The crassness is the same (kids on cocaine, poop jokes, boobs galore) and the jokes just as crude, but only sparing parts of A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas have a deliberate holiday bent to them. At least Santa wants the two to make amends and start hanging out again.

The trouble is, Cho and Penn are at their best when their stoner alter egos are at odds. If only by comparison, the more singular narrative in White Castle gets a kick to the groin here. It’s the series’ way of telling its two crutches to get over themselves. Stressed about landing the perfect weekend? Can’t get your shit together? Relax. How exactly Harold’s highstrung mentality and Kumar’s “devil may care” worldview align is a bit perplexing, but it’s a hazy kind of logic the films have run on for two installments already. There’s a weed for whatever ails you, but ya still need to get it together on your own. We can’t all be pals with Neil Patrick Harris.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

Way #6: Santa’s Slay

Way #7: Scrooged

Way #8: The Ref

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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #8: ‘The Ref’

The Ref Denis Leary Christmas movie review Kevin Spacey Judy Davis dinner scene

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Opposites attract. At least that’s what they say, isn’t it? Presumably at some point in the lives of Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd Chasseur (Kevin Spacey), passionate discord begot hot and heavy romance. Caroline’s a frazzled, noncommittal creative type while Lloyd’s buckled down, black-and-white understanding of right and wrong trembles in the shadow of his controlling, penny pinching-mother (Glynis Johns). These days, Caroline and Lloyd can only bicker over money, failed restaurant businesses, affairs, and the rearing of their delinquent military cadet son (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.). Whether their marriage was always this divided is up for debate — a debate with no foreseeable end in sight.

Regardless of how “game” he is for the task (read: he’s not game), serial burglar Gus (Denis Leary) falls, quite literally, into the position of family referee. While finishing up his “one last score” at the suburban palace of the Chasseur’s neighbor, Gus lands himself into a booby trap of Merrie Melodies proportions, getting sprayed with cat urine and falling down a secret chute next to an ornery rottweiler. However Gus manages to escape, he besets a visibly distraught Caroline in a local convenience store, fresh from a draining therapy session with Lloyd and Dr. Wong (B.D. Wong), coaxing the couple at gunpoint to their home, where he ties them up and waits for his getaway driver to snatch an unoccupied boat.

Often typecast as the wry asshole, Leary’s persona is tailor made for Gus’ no-nonsense vigilante. (he towers over the likes of Spacey and Davis in the film’s poster.) Stuck between a bickering couple, and later a full-on Chasseur family Christmas dinner, he soon learns he may have bitten off more than he can chew, and while threats and waving his big gun around work well enough for a while, Gus eventually names himself as the evening’s de facto therapist. Unable to leave this domestic chaos until police finish their sweep of the neighborhood, Gus poses as Caroline and Lloyd’s therapist as Mama Chasseur and Caroline’s in-laws arrive for the evening. Predictably, Lloyd’s prodding mother soon tires of ribbing Caroline’s aggressively authentic candlelit feast and Gus is forced to improvise in his new role. His cocksure dismissal of both marital strife and psychiatric disorders write large raises more than a few eyebrows, but the candid attitude is enough to spark the family into voicing long held grievances. The holiday juxtaposition is further enhanced by the amber hues of cinematographer Adam Kimmel, as the warm glow of ambient mood lighting and a roaring fire come to run sour and yellow under the catharsis of group “therapy.”

As Caroline’s “lucia wreath” headgear demonstrates, the holidays can bear down on us like a gaudy, flaming burden. The Ref enjoys upending rosy Rockwellian portraits of the holidays, and its setup promises interesting directions for its two leads; it also helps to place the frayed ends of an unraveling marriage in the hands of Spacey and Davis, the latter of whom is particularly excellent as a walking, empathetic disaster. but what’s gained from a few more shouting matches and an airing of dirty family laundry on Christmas Eve? With Gus in control, it’s easy to root for Leary’s ironic voice of reason, but barring his formulaic lesson of “right and wrong,” Gus’ lack of emotional baggage turns him into the least interesting eccentric of the bunch. It’s a shame too, given how easily the Chasseurs come to sympathize with their captor, biding time and mapping out a credible escape route to the New Jersey docks. Back at the trashed Chasseur home, Caroline and Lloyd toast glasses, apparently satisfied the latest direction their marriage has taken. Were it not for the visible shocks and squeals but an hour ago, one might think these ugly slugfests were a part of an annual Christmas tradition.

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

Way #6: Santa’s Slay

Way #7: Scrooged

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