Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012 in Film: Just Another Asshole’s Year End List

I don’t pay to see a lot of “bad” movies.

That means that out of an average year, if Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds isn’t already on my radar, I’m probably not coughing up seven bucks to see it.

Because I’m not a “critic” — yeah, in multiple senses of the word — a Top X List doesn’t really feel fair, especially since the worst film I actually paid to see this year was probably Snow White and the Huntsman. 

What I can do is weigh my own expectations against the finished product. What was a surprise in 2012? What was a total letdown?

So yes, embedded somewhere in this post are “best of” and “worst of” lists. As a disclaimer, there are some blind spots in my list. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t come ’round these here parts for another week, and Holy Motors screened in the city of Madison exactly once from what I can surmise. I haven’t seen Lay Mizzzzz or Anna Karenina or Michael Haneke’s Amour. And I’ll save you Whedonites some time: there is no Cabin in the Woods on this list. *drops mic*

— A Few Notes 

IMAX film reel

1. It doesn’t take some idiot with WordPress to point out the obvious: superhero movies still pwn the shit out of Hollywood. Joss Whedon’s snappy action extravaganza The Avengers was the domestic B.O. king this year, taking in over $623 million. More to the point, all three major comic book releases this summer easily broke the top box office charts (#2 The Dark Knight Rises: $448 million; #6 The Amazing Spider-man: $262 million). Back in the spring, film sites ripped (now former) Walt Disney Studios President Rich Ross for poorly marketing the financially disappointing John Carter. In my opinion? Andrew Stanton shoulda just thrown a cape on him. BILLIONS O’ DOLLARS.

2. The internet has changed film journalism (arguably for the worse) and induced round-the-clock rumor-mongering and list making. Where ten years ago, a top story might be the critical disappointment over The Phantom Menace, now it’s “Ten Potential Directors We’d Like to See Direct Episode VII.” The internet hasn’t just expanded platforms for the critics, though; it’s also unleashed the wrath of the fanboy. First with The Dark Knight Rises and more recently with early criticism against the first Hobbit, rabid fans likely foaming at the mouth have taken to sites like Rotten Tomatoes and lashed out at negative reviews. Expect this to continue if not increase altogether. And then prepare for the worst.

3. Even with Monsters University on next year’s slate, look for continued challenges to the iron-fisted reign of Herr Pixar on the peaceful peasant lands of children’s animation. While Brave still pleased most critics and took a decent chunk at the box office, it’s a stretch to compare it to the likes of other recent successes like Wall-E, Up, or Toy Story 3. Dreamworks and Disney released Rise of the Guardians and the excellent Wreck-It Ralph respectively, and while I wasn’t hot on it, Focus Features and Laika (of Coraline fame) garnered plenty of buzz with ParaNorman. 

4. For film scores, Hans Zimmer and Adele are obvious winners. The latter came out with one of the best Bond themes, and while most 007 songs suffer from being pop cultural artifacts of their respective time, Adele’s more timeless old school qualities have me thinking “Skyfall” will go down as more Shirley Bassey and less Madonna. Zimmer’s Dark Knight Rises score also felt like an appropriate conclusion to Nolan’s story. Bane and Catwoman both got some pretty unique themes, but Zimmer also brought back ideas he and his former collaborator first introduced way back in Batman Begins. While Rises’ score clearly suffered from the absence of Howard’s gentler moments, Zimmer’s knack for epic bombast in tracks like “Rise” and “Imagine the Fire” is unparalleled. Or to put it another way: BWOOOOOOOM.

5. On the flip side, Howard Shore let me down. In his original Lord of the Rings scores, he’d developed such an iconic and varied musical language for Tolkien’s mythology. Thus far, his work on The Hobbit has been a bummer. Shore adds variations of themes we all know and love, but there’s very little creative expansion, and it frankly comes off as tired and lazy. The “Hobbit theme,” while clearly riffing on that of the Fellowship’s, is undeniably catchy in its many forms and remains a standout. If only the rest of the score didn’t bank on its predecessor as a crutch — or cause head-scratching comparisons to be made. What does a goblin chase in the Misty Mountains have to do with the Bridge of Kazad-dum? They both have… stairs? Yeah, I don’t know either.

6. What about formats? Will 2013 see even more overpriced tickets for 3D conversions? Or will Apple realize the ultimate in consumer home theater systems so we never have to leave our padded apartments ever again? One thing’s for sure: IMAX is coming back. HARD. Star Trek Into Darkness, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Ender’s Game, and Iron Man 3 are just a handful of releases next year slated to go big. Is it another easy way to make more money? Sure. But studios may also be finally catching on to the fact that a lot of people couldn’t give two shits about patchy 3D conversion. And hey, maybe we’ll end up getting a Will Ferrell buddy comedy in IMAX. America could really use one of those.

— Biggest Letdowns —

3. The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight Rises Best of worst of 2012 Batman

Seriously? You? What’s next, asshole? Mexican food had an “underwhelming” third quarter?

First of all, unless the secret brain-washing ingredients Taco Bell throws in its Grade F meat start convincing America it’s the best thing ever, Mexican food will always be great.

And I did like this Batman movie. How couldn’t I? Hathaway kicked ass. Tom Hardy’s Bane was this bizarre, lucha libre Darth Vader. It gave us “Light it up” and “What a lovely, lovely voice.” It gave us a BANE SOUNDBOARD. And that ending with Joseph Robin-Levitt was about as perfect of a conclusion to the series as anything I could’ve masturbated to.

Rises has a metric ton of cool ideas: Bane’s mask is a literal inversion of Batman’s; not to mention he actually breaks the Bat; a huge battle in the streets of Gotham; a plot about some nuclear reactor that actually felt like a comic book movie telling a “comic book” story; Talia and Ra’s al Ghul have the exact same deaths. The Nolans even reverse the standard hero-villain relationship. This time, the bad guys are the idealists with a sweeping plan to change the world, and the hero is just one pissed off dude, hellbent on getting his revenge. It’s slight and a little genius.

But even after five months of thinking and two separate screenings — one in glorious IMAX, no less — I can’t help but shake this feeling of letdown. This was probably inevitable. As fun as it is to cover our mouths and purr “Do you feel in chaaaahhge?” Bane is no Joker. And if you had to narrow down a single element to The Dark Knight’s success, it would probably be Heath Ledger, for better or worse. Not to mention that any way you slice it, Rises’ script has a lot of problems. There’s weird pacing and a strangely elastic sense of time, and Christopher Nolan’s glib handling of specifics felt almost abbreviated this time around.

Still, this marks my fourth paragraph on a film that I’m calling a “letdown.” Not too shabby, eh? Plus, I already know I’ll be buying any future releases of a Dark Knight Rises Twelve-Disc Triple Awesome Collector’s Deluxe with Bacon Edition, whenever that comes out on Blu-Ray.

2. Lincoln 

Best films 2012 Worst of Lincoln Spielberg

Maybe it was the cram-packed movie theater on a Saturday afternoon that did me in. Maybe the white-haired crankiness that comes with a weekend matinee rubbed off on me too much. But the headaches are a’comin just thinking about Lincoln’s wordy pompousness.

Daniel Day-Lewis is the mad notes. For TEH ALWAYS. If Tom Cruise is Hollywood’s best actor at showing you how hard he worksDDL works just as hard and then does something more substantial than Jack Reacher with that same “I’m totally sleeping in an abandoned jail” level of dedication. Thank Christ Liam Neeson’s resurrection probably kept him off this project. Had he stayed on as planned, one of Lincoln’s few strengths would’ve been lost to another boring, deep-voiced one-note interpretation of an already mythologized President.

And speaking of mythologizing, what exactly are Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner trying for here? The writing in Lincoln often feels like it’s fighting to up the impact of the President’s life. No, no I want to begin with a couple of black Union soldiers reciting lines back to Abe from the Gettysburg Address. And make that shit verbatim, dammit. 

Granted, Kushner limited to white back-patting in adapting Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, but this sobering perspective on exactly how sweeping change is made in this country was a little too sobering, and too anesthetic. Lincoln is overblown, flowery and self-indulgent in the worst ways, from that absurd Gettysburg recitation to an unnecessary stretching of the President’s assassination. Spielberg shows the bullying, the bribery, the paper-pushing behind the Fourteenth Amendment, and then squats all over the collective effort with a saccharine eulogy. Lincoln wants to have its moldy, bearded seed cake and eat it, too. With all due respect, Mr. President, fat chance.

1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit Unexpected Journey 2012 best of worst film year Gollum Riddles

If you listen closely while watching Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film (of three!),  in the background you can hear Warner Bros. execs setting aflame their wads of $20 bills, which they presumably use to light larger wads of $100 bills which they then use to light the finest cigars in all the Southfarthing.

Skeptical as I am with this trilogy biznass, I can imagine where each film would begin and end. An Unexpected Journey wrapped up the goblins and the bits with Gollum; The Desolation of Smaug will look to showcase the Desolation of Smaug; and There and Back Again has gotta have the Battle of the Five Armies somewhere in it. The problem with this plan is that you can already see the seams from the cutting and re-arranging of Tolkien’s context. Never mind that An Unexpected Journey seems convinced a story about dragon’s gold is just as epic as the end of Middle-earth. Even with the extra tidbits from Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and the dearly departed Guillermo del Toro, the story feels run down, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Where was the fun from Tolkien’s children’s story? Where was the whimsy? An Unexpected Journey’s moments of “adventure” only occur when characters literally say the word aloud. Maybe I’m just too naive. From a fiscal standpoint, why wouldn’t studios stretch this out to three movies? Or five? Hell, let’s make it an even thirteen. One for each dwarf.

— Biggest Surprises —

5. The Grey

The Grey Liam Neeson Joe Carnahan wolves Best of 2012

One of the problems with year end lists, beyond the arbitrary ranking of subjective opinions, is that certain “kinds” of films get left in the cold. Films where Liam Neeson fights off a pack of CGI wolves get ignored alongside the films where Liam Neeson blathers on about a CGI kraken. (Kraken! Kraken! Kraken!) Frankly, that’s not very fair to Joe Carnahan.

Disguising itself as Taken It 2 Tha Wolves, The Grey is smart and stripped-down with an actual head on its shoulders. Neeson plays an Alaskan oil worker whose sole job is to protect his drilling team from getting torn apart by wild wolves. When the team’s plane crashes in the middle of fucking nowhere, The Grey gets cold and callous real fast.

While it’s easy to point out the stock character tropes at play — Neeson’s the badass, Dermot Mulroney’s the coward, Frank Grillo’s the hothead — each man feels fleshed out. That goes double for Neeson, who’s embellished with a two-pronged biography that’s as tragic as it is poetic. Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day…

Carnahan is better known for his showier fare in Smokin Aces or The A-Team, but his co-writing credit with Ian MacKenzie Jeffers shows he’s fully capable of crafting a smart, even moving action film that defies conventions and expectations.

4. Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths Sam Rockwell Best of 2012 film tent

Martin McDonagh’s first film In Bruges was a darkly comic look at the lives (and inevitable downfalls) of career hitmen. In Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh returns to that same interest, with an even wilder bent and a more raucous sense of humor. From his days as a playwright, McDonagh has had an undeniable knack for witty dialogue, whether it’s the snappy back-and-forth between Colin Farrell’s screenwriter and Sam Rockwell’s serial dognapper or a smart-assed sitdown with Woody Harrelson’s unhinged gangster and Christopher Walken, latter who’s rarely been better.

Taking meta-textual cues from the likes of Pulp Fiction and Charlie Kaufman’s headscratchers, Seven Psychopaths is a bloody dissection of not just the gangster film but our broader interests in pop culture and how violence plays into those obsessions.

And to alter a famous bit of graffiti, if I may:

CLAPTON ROCKWELL IS GOD

 3. Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas Ben Whishaw Best of 2012

Okay, here’s the thing. I totally get the hate for Cloud Atlas. There’s a good chance its idealistic musings on love and human connections and their broader effects through time are too “hippie bullshit” for some. That’s completely fair.

But I couldn’t help admire a film that has this big of a heart and so brazenly wears it on its sleeve. To steal from myself:

The more important, less infuriating question is ‘Why does Cloud Atlas work?’ The short answer is the editing, or more appropriately, the acid-laced, crotch-flaming juggling act Tykwer and the Wachowskis pull off. It’s not always perfect; you can definitely see some of the seams out of the gate, and Cloud Atlas’ first opening minutes take some getting used to. You wanted to learn more about our intrepid homosexual composer? Sorry, bru but you’ll have to wait until space Halle Berry helps Tom Hanks kill nuclear fallout savages first! That sounds exaggerated, but it can be very close to the truth. Thankfully, this is seven total minutes out of a nearly three hour movie, and the deftness of knowing which plot threads to turn to (and when to do so) is a real testament to the filmmaker trio. To put this into context: buy six 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, dump ‘em together and then show me the best parts of each completed picture all within a single finished product. Or you know, just kill yourself now.

Yes, a great deal of Cloud Atlas’ makeup looked really fucking terrible. But from the infinite cross-cutting over numerous stories to co-director Tom Tykwer’s collaborative composition with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, this is a group effort that’s as moving as it is impressive. Cloud Atlas is the trippiest, craziest class presentation you’ve ever had to sit through in college. A+ for effort

2. Django Unchained

Django Unchained Jamie Foxx gun 2012 in film best of

Truth be told, Django wasn’t even on my radar until the flipping opening credits started up. That’s how little I was excited for Tarantino’s latest. And truthfully, I’m curious what didn’t make me so curious, because oh what a movie this is.

There’s been a lot of love for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom this year, and for good reason. While I’d argue Anderson’s never really moved past his obsessions with dysfunctional communities and the mechanics of the nuclear family, Moonrise Kingdom’s focus on an innocent love story between two young adults feels more appropriate for its director’s spritely palette and awkward conversations — at least more than anything he’s done since The Royal Tenenbaums. Django Unchained, with its endless references and vintage aesthetic, is perfectly tailored right down to Tarantino’s story.

Remember that scene in Reservoir Dogs where Tim Roth has to recite a fake drug story to convince the other chaps he’s legit? From his early career on, Tarantino’s been fascinated by the “hows” and “whys” of films within other films, and that moment in Reservoir Dogs is a superb look at the actor’s role. Well Django is all about theatricality and performing for an audience, too. It’s also a deft commentary on the slippery ethical slope of American business. And it of course functions as a slick, modern take on the blaxploitation revenge picture. Any way you slice it, it’s damn cool, baby.

1. Kill List

2012 Best of film Kill List Ben Wheatley

Before you angrily type comments of “refund!” and “hack!” below, I would hope the quality of this writing has reminded  you all that this site has no paywall. So I owe you all nothing. NOTHING! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Kill List was by far 2012’s biggest surprise. Sure, The Master and Compliance were tighter, better made films, and there’s a strong chance you don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about. But if you had to ask what film has stayed in my mind more than any other I saw this year? Kill List wins out. And frankly it’s not even close.

Director Ben Wheatley plays with horror, suspense, and crime in ways I have never seen before, and arguably with a more severe genre-bending penchant than Drew Goddard’s excellent Cabin in the Woods. Suspense turns to dread with impeccable sound mixing. Unflinching depictions of violence submerge you in the inner suffocation of Neil Maskell’s soldier-turned-hitman — a hammer to the head in Kill List doesn’t cut away like another film might. Forget those contrived pull quotes calling this a “gut punch” or a “white-knuckle thrill ride.” Kill List will destroy your soul, slowly and subtly, until it finally tips its hand. By then it’s far too late.

Of course now that I’ve talked it up this much, it can only really be a letdown right? Now I just look like an asshole. I guess even as the years change, some things still stay the same. See you in 2013.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Excites audiences, angers myopic dwarf: ‘Django Unchained,’ reviewed

Full disclosure: I was violently ‘meh’ on Django Unchained right up until its opening credits. And then I got hard.

In all seriousness, I worry that the media controversy stirred up by the likes of Spike Lee and Salon.com is causing us to miss the forest for the blood-splattered trees. Yes, there are some pretty blunt portraits of violence. But really, aside from a very brutal mandingo death fight (in “Stuck in the Middle” fashion, mostly cut around and heard), one could argue Django supports a revenge-driven wave of violence visited on whites at the hands of a black or pro-black perspective.

Or, one might argue that beyond its very sordid aesthetic, Django Unchained is much more concerned with the artifice of theater and the ethics of American business than exploiting slavery altogether. One might argue. Click on through so we can point fingers and embarrass ourselves together:

django unchained christoph waltz jamie foxx mime movies

1 Comment

Filed under The Off Duty Mime

12 Ways of Christmas: #12 ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’

Muppet Christmas Carol Kermit Bob Cratchit comet shooting star song Henson

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. 

Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

The twelfth way has actually arrived on time! At this point, I’m more surprised than you.

As one who wore down his VHS tape with repeat viewings each year, I can blame my childhood for choosing to conclude this feature with The Muppet Christmas Carol. Then again, fifteen years removed from school boy adolescence I might still argue Brian Henson’s adaptation of Charles Dickens remains an all-time Christmas classic.

Part of that success is owed to Michael Caine’s Ebenezer Scrooge. Where Simon Callow’s voice work felt obligatory and bloated, Caine’s deliveries are sincere. “Bah humbug” isn’t a required checkpoint for the film to hit; for Caine, it’s genuine disgust. And Jim Henson Productions carries that same authenticity throughout. Their vision of Dickens’ cold London streets as slanted rows of Burtonesque houses is both unique and native to the bent cut of the Muppets’ group jib. Likewise, the Ghost of Christmas Present looks (and laughs) like Santa’s younger brother, and one who stole too much from the Ephedrine bottle. Even the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come — so often depicted as a voiceless, faceless cowl — has stunted height and disproportionately long arms to match composer Miles Goodman’s low tuba stomps.

Muppet Christmas Carol Scrooge Michael Caine scarf song

Anthropomorphic puppets inside of a classic Christmas tale might seem jarring to those didn’t grow up with a similar fondness, and that’s understandable. If you’re not already a Muppet fan, there’s a strong chance you won’t like this. The meta nature of Gonzo’s narration isn’t for everyone, and Rizzo the Rat is pretty useless, considering his prat falls and physical humor get annoying after an early jelly bean bit. Despite that, the Muppets themselves are inserted quite gracefully, with some “casting” choices near pitch-perfect: Sam Eagle as Scrooge’s Headmaster and Stadler & Waldorf as Jacob (and Robert) Marley. And Fozziwig? Spot on.

There’s also a surprising command of the camera here, an economical use of the single shot’s depth and framing power. Yes, in a Muppet movie. What really makes The Muppet Christmas Carol a success at the end though is Paul Williams’ song numbers, which Goodman gleefully peppers throughout his score with variations of Williams’ leitmotifs. From the cheery majesty of the opening credits’ brass, the music is as devoted to the source material as Gonzo is in faithfully repeating lines from the story wholesale. The thought of Michael Caine singing in a Christmas morning stroll through London sounds terrible, but Scrooge’s musical number is an effective resolution of the film’s extraneous plot points. It isn’t detailed, but it’s undoubtedly thorough. Those early beats with Fred Cratchit and Bunsen & Beaker and even “us meeces” never feel wasted. Neither does your time spent watching.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

Way #3: Die Hard

Way #4: Bad Santa

Way #5: The Family Man

Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Way #8: Black Christmas

Way #9: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Way #10: The Star Wars Holiday Special

Way #11: Gremlins

1 Comment

Filed under Twelve Ways of Christmas

12 Ways of Christmas: #11 ‘Gremlins’

Gremlins ending Christmas old man Mogwai night

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. 

Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Black Christmas felt like a cheap excuse to piss off people who enjoyed the holiday season. Its strange brew of Christmas aesthetic against serial murders, while novel in concept, seem to defend its existence. By the same token, Gremlins screams dissent — but unlike Bob Clark’s slasher, it also calls itself out for it.

Gremlins begins on a seasonal note, with Billy Peltzer’s father finding a cute and furry mogwai in the basement of a sketchy Chinatown store. Though the stereotypical shop owner refuses to sell his exotic pet, Mr. Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) sneaks a deal with the man’s grandson, who warns him of three rules: don’t get the mogwai wet; keep him out of the light; and never, ever feed him after midnight.

Gremlins is committed to Murphy’s Law and sure enough, a water spill sees Billy’s pet “Gizmo” multiply into five ill-tempered duplicates. They proceed to trick Billy into fetching a midnight snack, forming Alien-like chrysalises and then hatching into larger, scaly tricksters, much to the chagrin of Billy’s mother (Frances Lee McCain). While director Joe Dante adds plenty of levity to Chris Columbus’ blackly comedic script, Gremlins holds it cards to its chest up until their big kitchen reveal, where McCain fends off several of the creatures with household appliances.

Gremlins kitchen cookie Christmas gingerbread

The production’s effects team, combining marionettes with scale wizardry, really nail their execution of Gizmo and the Gremlins — convincing creature effects 28 years later is as good a compliment as any. It’s the puppets that truly sell the first action set piece. A gremlin’s legs kick when stuck facefirst in a food processor and a similarly improvised kill with a microwave is gloriously gory — or as the MPAA later argued, too gory for a PG rating.

In addition to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (another product of Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg), Gremlins sparked enough parental outrage for the creation of a PG-13 rating, and in hindsight it’s easy to see why. Gremlins are fast learners and have an uncanny understanding of cynicism and dark humor. When they tease an ambush on crotchety spinster Mrs. Deagle with some faux caroling, the moment is an en pointe smirk at the holiday warmth it’s attacking.

At other moments though, like when Gremlins learn to fire guns or shoot crossbows or smoke Winstons, Dante’s playful direction seems more like a ringing endorsement. Gremlins isn’t an overly violent picture, but its blithe approach to character deaths comes too far into devil may care territory, and when Billy Peltzer isn’t all that likable or even interesting, it turns him into just another expendable target. Similarly, Billy’s romancing of Kate (Phoebe Cates) only surfaces when there’s a lull in all the Gremlins magic, and apart from recounting her father’s death via Santa suit accident in a house fire, her character is little more than a pretty face.

Gremlins sneers at small town America and our forced fakeness of holiday cheer. Dick Miller, as Billy’s cranky neighbor, is an all too appropriate human voice of disillusionment, griping about foreign cars and the damn television set. Gremlins might have failed if its dissent only sprang from supernatural fiends, but even Jerry Goldsmith’s grim reworking of “Silent Night” is a sign not every small town simpleton enjoys his cup of cheer.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

Way #3: Die Hard

Way #4: Bad Santa

Way #5: The Family Man

Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Way #8: Black Christmas

Way #9: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Way #10: The Star Wars Holiday Special

Leave a comment

Filed under Twelve Ways of Christmas

12 Ways of Christmas: #10 ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’

Star Wars Holiday Special Life Day song number Chewbacca wookiees gathering

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. 

Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Let this be America’s warning against hasty commercial licensing. It’s clear from the get-go that CBS had no idea what it was doing with Star Wars and its blockbuster potential way back in 1978. By the same token, modern pop culture is not above travesties like The Star Wars Holiday Special. Just look at that Scared Shrekless thing two Halloweens ago. Sadly, directors Steve Binder and David Acomba seemed to have little interest in adding to the Star Wars canon, and the areas in which they do contribute are puzzling.

When its not ripping clips and lines wholesale from the original Star Wars, The Holiday Special centers around Chewbacca’s return to his home planet of Kashyyyk, where his family — wife, Malla; son, “Itchy;” and father, “Lumpy” — await an annual “Life Day” celebration, the Wookiee surrogate for Christmas. Shoehorned in next to a tedious Imperial raid of the Wookiees’ tree home and an instructional cooking video led by a four-armed alien transvestite is Art Carney as annoying huckster Saun Dann and Bea Arthur, in a hemhorroidal cabaret number. The latter sequence, which sticks Arthur as the bartender in a space saloon, either shamelessly copies Mos Eisley’s cantina or is a sincere recreation of the classic set piece. The fact that neither is clear says wonders about its production values, which are as top notch as an episode of Zoobilee Zoo.

Star Wars Holiday Special Boba Fett cartoon dinosaur talisman CBS

In the interest of optimism, The Holiday Special does provide the earliest appearance of Boba Fett in an animated sequence where he assists and then betrays the Rebel Alliance in obtaining a magical talisman. The pursuit of the talisman is quickly forgotten and by the time Luke Skywalker discovers Fett’s treachery, he’s already blasted off. But despite its garish, uneven animation and caricature depictions, the segment is the show’s lone bright spot if only because the sight of Boba Fett wielding a electric prod whilst riding on the back of an amphibious brontosaurus is awesome.

I can’t explain what psychedelic performances from Diahann Caroll and Jefferson Starship have to do with “Life Day,” and the recurring presence of dancing gypsy circus gymansts goes unexplained. But The Holiday Special — and a conclusion with Carrie Fisher belting out Life Day’s virtues behind John Williams’ Main Title — is worth tracking down a torrent file, if only because of the awkward retconning it would cause in the future. After all, for adding just a shred of legitimacy to characters named “Lumpy” and “Itchy,” A.C. Crispin is a patron fucking saint of genre fiction.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

Way #3: Die Hard

Way #4: Bad Santa

Way #5: The Family Man

Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Way #8: Black Christmas

Way #9: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Leave a comment

Filed under Twelve Ways of Christmas

12 Ways of Christmas: #9 ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’

Screen shot 2012-12-24 at 3.00.01 PM

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. 

Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

As unnecessary as “realized” versions of animated classics seem to be — Adventures of Pinocchio, Snow White (or Mirror Mirror), Maleficent — Ron Howard deserves some credit for the sheer imagination he injects into his 2000 live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Not only does Howard flesh out the denizens of Whoville with their elaborate wiry hairdos and puckered noses, but he, along with writers Peter S. Seaman and Jeffrey Price, try to bulk up the original story with biographical information and a dearth of secondary characters.

The story, in its original form, had a primary concern with the Grinch himself, here by man of 1000 faces, Jim Carrey. One might argue that the green-haired curmudgeon’s dog Max is the second most prominent. The Grinch attempts to fatten a very time-honored and lean narrative is a noble cause, but the “new” material clashes with the story we’re all familiar with. Howard presents a strange backstory, explaining how the Grinch got to be… well, the Grinch in the first place.

In addition to upping the presence of Christmas catalyst Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), the film also devotes time to her two bumbling parents, as well as a so-very-weird love triangle between Whoville Mayor Augustus May Who (Jeffrey Tambor) and Christine Baranski. In Seuss’ original (and the excellent 1966 televised cartoon) the Grinch’s Who-manization comes at the end, when the denizens of Whoville show they don’t need the material wealth to celebrate Christmas. The extra biographical bits attempt to add nuance to our one-note curmudgeon; they end up as nothing more than green fluff.

Carrey might have the only face flexible enough to get anywhere close to the Grinch’s classic grin, and whether his facial structure was exaggerated through some computer wizardry, it remains an impressive blend of makeup and Carrey’s raw talent. His performance on the other hand is puzzling. When Carrey isn’t laying on the melodrama, he garbles quips and insults through his teeth like he’s chewing on concrete in what sounds like a higher-pitched take on Sean Connery’s oft impershonated ackshent. Carrey’s strengths have always been his voice talent and body language, but here it’s too much.

Song numbers feel too polished and while his voice is one-of-a kind, Anthony Hopkins’ narration is more of a distraction than an addition. You hear Hopkins, you think Hopkins, not a tender faceless storyteller. While the camera whizzes about detailed sets with a playfulness that’s appropriate to the source material, Seuss’ tale probably just works best in the pages of a big hardcover collection.

It’s worth noting that Seaman and Price weave in a commentary via Cindy Lou Who’s despondence over holiday commercialism. Ignoring the irony that How the Grinch Stole Christmas remains the second highest grossing Christmas movie of all time, a recurring theme about Whoville weaning itself off the shopping sprees seems hypocritical in light of the ending. Oh, and Carrey’s finger-pointing feels plain wrong. He has no high ground in Seuss’ original, because his plot to steal their holiday presents and trappings misses the larger point about Christmas. Howard and Co. might have made a similar mistake.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

Way #3: Die Hard

Way #4: Bad Santa

Way #5: The Family Man

Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Way #8: Black Christmas

Leave a comment

Filed under Twelve Ways of Christmas

12 Ways of Christmas: #8 ‘Black Christmas’

Black Christmas Bob Clark Olivia Hussey phone

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. 

Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Bob Clark has one fucked up resume. If that name doesn’t immediately jog your memory, this is the same director behind the perennial holiday classic,  A Christmas Story. He’s also the sick mind who made those Baby Geniuses movies, a series that’s arguably more offensive than his 1974 yuletide slasher, Black Christmas

We’ve already discussed incongruous genre mash-ups, but a Christmas horror film? It’s been argued that Clark and screenwriter E. Roy Moore were the pioneering force behind the slasher subgenre, even beating John Carpenter’s Halloween to the punch by a solid four years. Dates are indisputable, but does tossing a Santa cap on Michael Meyers work out in the end?

Black Christmas begins by throwing us right into its disturbed heart. Via first person perspective, we follow a deranged killer as he climbs into a sorority house’s attic and then stalks and kills one of its residents, dragging her corpse back to his shadowy playhouse lair. Smooth camera motions — as they mimic real head movement — make for an engaging opening sequence, especially when set against the backdrop of ornaments and tinsel. Too bad much of the devilish charm stops there.

After the first murder, Moore’s screenplay spends another 40 minutes following other sorority girls and an ensuing police investigation. Had the killer’s whereabouts remained a mystery, Lt. John Saxon’s phone tapping and questioning might be more enthralling. But it rarely grabs the attention when a bumbling police case involves detectives who know less than the audience.

Black Christmas then exists at a crisis with itself.  When it cross-cuts the faceless murderer stalking coeds in the shadows, it nails the tension on the head.  We see inebriated young women, and we see “him.” It’s the girls who remain blind, and even deaf in some cases. In a particular grace note of inspiration, the killer terrorizes the sorority house with prank phone calls, babbling in multiple, sometimes incomprehensible voices. The abrupt changes from child to man to woman to lunatic combine for a schizophrenic and unexplained serial murderer. It’s to Black Christmas’s strength that it leaves his origins, and ending, ambiguous.

As a Christmas film however, it’s tough to justify Black Christmas’ existence beyond the pure shock value of holiday stab wounds. Apart from some sporadic caroling and an early Christmas party, the film is dominated by mordant piano rumblings and fantastic sound design. The creaks and groans of the house’s wooden staircase make for a gripping “last girl” showdown, but any overt Christmas tropes fall by the wayside, and the shock factor fades away to cheap offense. Moore and Clark deserve credit for pushing the envelope so early, but the slasher tropes they establish gel better with trick r’ treating.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

Way #3: Die Hard

Way #4: Bad Santa

Way #5: The Family Man

Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

3 Comments

Filed under Twelve Ways of Christmas