Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 6

Saint (2010)

The modern version of Santa Claus is based fairly closely on Sinterklaas, the holiday tradition in various Scandinavian countries. Both characters are based off the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, though Sinterklaas is a little closer. Instead of passing out gifts on Christmas Eve, Sinterklaas distributes presents to good children on December 5th, the eve of the holiday devoted to St. Nicolas. Though cultural differences vary, both characters more-or-less serve the same purpose. And like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas would eventually receive a horror movie make-over. “Saint” came from the amazingly named Dick Maas, previously of killer elevator flick “The Lift” and slasher film “Amsterdamned.” Much like the various killer Santa flicks, the film garnered some controversy in its home country for putting a grisly spin on a children’s icon. Like those American films, “Saint” would quickly develop a cult following.

The Dutch children have been lied too. Saint Nicholas wasn’t a generous man, saving daughters from ghastly fates and dropping gold-filled socks down chimneys. Instead, he was a cruel warlord, demanding money, food, or virgins from towns. Eventually, the people had enough and burnt Nicholas and his followers alive. Now, whenever December 5th falls on a full moon, St. Nicholas returns from beyond the grave, going on a murderous rampage. During the Saint’s last killing spree, Goert’s family was brutally killed. Forty years later, he’s a police officer and is prepared for Nicholas’ return. As the villain goes about reaping chaos, teenagers Frank and Lisa are caught up in Goert’s mission.

“Saint” never takes itself one-hundred percent seriously. It repeatedly acknowledges the ridiculousness of its central threat from time to time, playing off the contrast between Sinterklaas’ innocent appearance and the real one’s violent behavior. Yet much of the humor also emerges from the teenage protagonists. The scene introducing them has a dildo being displayed during a classroom show-and-tell session. Young hero Frank dresses up as Sinterklaas with his rowdy friends, going out to drink and party more so then to pass out gifts. There’s a pretty ridiculous subplot about Frank cheating on his girlfriend with Lisa, her best friend. Strangely, and perhaps a deliberate subversion, the teens are never punished for their indiscretions. Other silly gags are sprinkled throughout, such as Saint Nicholas’ horse falling into an apartment owned by two stereotypical gay men. 

For the film’s breezy tone, its villains are played totally straight. Saint Nicholas is as indestructible as any slasher movie villain, totally unaffected by gunshots. He rides an unkillable white horse and wields a razor bladed crosier. He tears up a number of victims with that weapon, including impalement, evisceration, and a clever decapitation. The film has a clever take on Zwarte Piet as well, Sinterklaas’ politically incorrect helpers. Instead of being Moorish slaves or having faces blackened with soot, their zombies with skin burnt black from the fire. The gore is grisly, even showing the villain inflicting violence on kids. But there’s a puckish sense of humor about the whole thing, keeping things from getting too unpleasant.

Helping along this tonal balancing act is the film’s ridiculously endearing hero. Goert is introduced shooting a present sent to the police station. His crazy preparedness gets him sent on a forced vacation. But he’s still ready for Sinterklaas’ rampage. He arms himself with a flamethrower, since fire is the Saint’s primary weakness. He outfits his boat with explosive, ready to sink Nicolas’ own boat with a massive fireball. Bert Luppes plays the part like a hardened action hero, totally committed to the material. He’s certainly a bit more endearing then the teenage hero. Caro Lenssen’s Lisa is cute and charming but Egbert Weeber’s Frank is kind of a jerk.

“Saint’s” ending seems to set up a sequel, as the evil Saint Nicholas is more then likely to return. If Maas threw this in as a sincere sequel hook or simply as a throwback to eighties’ slasher flicks, I’m not sure. The film certainly has a blasphemous streak I enjoy. While most films would simply dress a serial killer up as a beloved, childhood icon, Dick Maas had the balls to make the real deal a murderer. I admire that chutzpah. “Saint” is silly, and a bit of a trifle, but should entertain horror fans. For extra comedy value, watch the ludicrous English dub included on the DVD, which was almost certainly bad on purpose. [7/10]

The Christmas Toy (1985)

For years, I’ve been hearing about how “Toy Story” was totally a rip-off. Rumor has it that the plot is nearly identical to a Jim Henson produced Christmas special from the mid-eighties. Having now watched “The Christmas Toy,” I can say the accusation isn’t without basis. Both films take place in a world where toys come to life when the children leave the room. In both, the haughty “favorite” toy lords his popularity over the other toys. In both, that toy’s favorite status is threatened when a new, space-themed action figure enters the playroom. The two space toys also take themselves way too seriously. In the end, everyone learns a lesson in humility. Now, don’t get me wrong, “Toy Story” is obviously the better movie. But it’s fair to say that “The Christmas Toy” did it first.

There is a big difference between the two films. In “The Christmas Toy,” when a person spots a toy moving around, it looses its ability to come to life. The toy’s “soul” is essentially torn out. Another difference is, while Pixar took great pains to make sure Woody wasn’t an asshole, the same courtesy wasn’t taken with Rugby the Tiger. Including a somewhat irritating vocal pattern, he spends half of the special bragging about how he’s the little girl’s favorite. His ego is threatened when Christmas arrives and he’s determined to sabotage the holiday. The story teams him up with a cat toy, who he also frequently mocks. These points come together at the end, when the cat toy is spotted by a person. Rugby realizes the mouse was his only friend, learning a hard lesson in what sacrifice and friendship means. “The Christmas Toy” does cheat a bit, as the sincere song brings the mouse back to life. Which definitely retroactively removes some of the tension from the film.

Yes, I said music. “The Christmas Toy” is a musical, with about five song and dance numbers included among its hour long run time. While there’s nothing here on the level of Paul Williams’ “Muppet Christmas Carol” soundtrack, the songs aren’t bad. The opening number, “Toys Love to Play,” is a little too bombastic for its own good but does successfully set the tone. The title lending “Greatest Christmas Toy of All” has an effective reprise, telling the story from both Rugby’s enthusiastic memory and Apple the Doll’s forlorn recollection. “The Song of Meteora” is easily the stand-out number in the film, with a funky beat and a catchy chorus, a song meant to feed into the new toy’s ego and get her back into her damn box. “Try the Impossible” is way too sappy though does get the point across.

A downside to “The Christmas Toy” are some of the muppet designs. Apple the Doll is slightly creepy looking, stumbling into the uncanny valley. I wish a few of the supporting characters – like the cab driver toy, vain Barbie doll expy, or cute dragon – got a little more screen time. In the original television broadcast and VHS release, Kermit the Frog introduces and closes the film. The DVD release clips these scenes, since Kermit and the gang are owned by Disney now. Luckily, the Kermit sequences can be found on YouTube and are quite cute. “The Christmas Toy” is a cute hour for the kids, with some decent songs and above-average muppet effects. The ending, I’ll admit, got me slightly misty eyed so I guess the special achieved its goal.  [7/10]

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Christmas 2016: September 5

A Christmas Carol (1938)

There’s certainly no shortage of adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.” Enough so that everyone can be said to have their favorite versions. My favorite is the one with the Muppets, followed closely by the one starring George C. Scott. My dad, however, preferred the 1938 adaptation starring Reginald Owen. Even this early carol was preceded by seven silent versions and two British sound versions, one of which is lost. Yet Owen’s Scrooge does seem to be relatively well regarded by classic film aficionados. Since December isn’t complete without some version of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts, I guess it’s about time I give this one a shot.

There’s no point in describing the plot of any version of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s one of the most well-known stories in the English language. Due to its iconic and classically structured story, few versions stray far from Dickens’ outline. 1938’s “A Christmas Carol” is notable for the elements director Edwin L. Marin and writer Hugo Butler added to the story. More attention is paid to Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, skating on the ice. Later, during the Ghost of Christmas Past segment, a priest similarly slides in the snow. After Marley appears, Scrooge calls a group of cops up into his room to investigate.  Following a snowball fight gone wrong, Ebenezer actually fires Bob Cratchit. These are little additions but, considering how everyone knows exactly what’s coming, any deviation is noticed.

For everything this “Carol” adds, it also takes out a well known element. Dicken’s text was cut down to fit into a 69 minute run time and also to better suit MGM’s suite of family films. So many of the darker aspects got clipped. Scrooge’s beloved but long gone fiancĂ© Beth is excised entirely. Jacob Marley’s appearance is shortened. The Ghost of Christmas Present presenting the children of Want and Need is removed. Scrooge being humiliated by Fred’s party game is no more. By removing the darker elements of the story, 1938’s “Christmas Carol” seems overly sanitized. Scrooge proclaims he loves Christmas halfway through but this change doesn’t feel earned. The joy of the Cratchit’s feast is lingered on while how little they have is ignored. The power of these things is diminished without the contrast of Dickensian misery.

Apparently, this “Christmas Carol” was originally meant to have a 1939 release date. A last minute change pushed the film up a year, forcing the entire production to be rushed through in a few weeks. This is most obvious in the rather flat direction. There’s very little of that British atmosphere, isolated to a few shots of Scrooge walking the snowy London streets. Even the Ghost of Christmas Future is surprisingly un-spooky. Edwin Marin’s presentation is usually stagey, focusing on people standing around and talking. What flourishes he adds, such as Scrooge grinning in his sleep, only amount to so much. However, Franz Waxman – whose “Bride of Frankenstein” score I admire – does contribute some interesting elements. Such as the Ghost of Christmas Past being proceeded by a lightly chiming bell.

Since the “Christmas Carol” story is immediately recognizable, the performances often end up defining the various film versions. Reginald Owen is a pretty good Scrooge. He’s nasty enough in the early scenes. When confronted by Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Past, his composure slips in interesting ways. His easy transformation from miser to merrymaker is more the fault of the script then Owen. Lionel Braham’s Ghost of Christmas Present gets a good moment, when he spreads the Christmas cheer to a pair of arguing men on the street. Gene and Kathleen Lockhart play the Cratchits. Both are unerringly merry. Even after getting fired, Lockhart’s Bob seems in awfully high spirits.

I suspect this “Christmas Carol” is probably the first version a lot of people saw. It used to get shown on TV all the time throughout the sixties and seventies. Turner Entertainment even released a colorized version in 1988. For me personally, 1938’s “Christmas Carol” seems de-fanged and non-personal, taking out the story’s grit without elaborating on the other elements. It’s about as stock parts as a “Christmas Carol” can get. I think I’ll stick by the versions I prefer. But I guess I have to give Alastair Sim a shot next year? [5/10]

The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special (2002)

Ah, Lobo. Created in the late eighties as a one-note villain, the character would come to fame in the nineties as an absurdist parody of then-popular superhero trends. Like bulging muscles, chains, face paint, and grimdark anti-hero attitudes. (Though not everybody got the joke.) Many of the things Deadpool is now beloved for, Lobo did first and somewhat less obnoxiously. The character’s cult following was such that, in 2002, director Scott Leberecht made a student film adaptation of “The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special.” The premise has the hyper-macho space biker being hired by the Easter Bunny, sick of Christmas dominating the holiday market, to take out Santa Claus. Lobo being who he is, things don’t exactly go according to plan.

The short, available to the masses thanks to convention bootleg tables and the internet, was reportedly made for a little over two thousand dollars. This lack of funds shows sometimes. The short mostly takes place over three sets and the majority of the action happens off-screen. Apparently some professionals contributed their wares free of charge. This is also evident, as the make-up effects on Lobo and the Easter Bunny are well done. There’s even some popular music on the soundtrack, including a Rob Zombie song. Which is appropriate considering how much Lobo and the shock rocker resemble each other.

What it lacks in production values, the short makes up for with fidelity to the source material. “The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special” perfectly captures the irrelevant, over-the-top tone you associate with the character. Lobo hunts and tears Santa’s elves apart like a slasher movie villain. Andrew Bryniarski – whose other credits include “Batman Returns,” “Street Fighter,” and the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake – has the right attitude, an utterly ridiculous character unaware of his own ridiculousness. The sight of the Easter Bunny jumping up and swearing is pretty amusing too. Santa’s characterization as a holier-than-thou manipulator, willing to strike down his opponents, is a nice touch too.

Lobo has never reached the same popularity he had in the nineties, though he’s show up in several cartoons and remains a favorite among comic nerds. For a while, Warner Brothers was even trying to make a feature film about him. Guy Ritchie was going to direct, with a PG-13 rating and a teenage girl co-star in mind. Which doesn’t sound very faithful. It’s hard to imagine the character’s absurdist humor working in DC’s current, self-serious film universe. (Though I'm not surprised to read the project might be resurrected, due to "Deadpool's" success.) Until W.B. makes that movie, fans have got “The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special,” which is pretty well done and quite entertaining. [7/10]

Sunday, December 4, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

I’ve previously discussed how, as a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch any of Jim Varney’s Ernest movies. My mom thought they were “too dumb” and bared me from renting them. (I would eventually catch up with “Ernest Scared Stupid” and consider myself something of a fan.) This put me out of the loop with kids my own age. I can recall a class mate of mine talking about how amusing “Ernest Saves Christmas” was. Of course, as with many old kid’s flicks, a fine layer of nostalgia is required to enjoy them. Without ever seeing “Ernest Saves Christmas” as a kid, there’s really no reason for me to own it.

In this incarnation of Jim Varney’s lovable simpleton, Ernest P. Worrell is working as a cab driver in Miami. During an unseasonably hot December day, he picks up an old man claiming to be Santa Claus. Mr. Claus says he’s developing a memory problem and is ready to pass the mantle of Santa to someone new. In this case, a beloved local kid’s show host whose program was recently canceled. Due to Santa’s forgetfulness, he leaves his magical bag in Ernest’s cab. Teaming up with a teenage runaway, Ernest works to return Santa’s magical bag to him before its too late to save Christmas.

If anything can be said to make the Ernest movies worth seeing, it’s Jim Varney’s indomitable comedic energy. This is on display in “Saves Christmas” as well. An early scene has the character’s wild driving pushing a passenger into catatonia. When equipped with Santa’s magic bag, an amusing montage follows of the dunderhead removing increasingly odd items. While visiting Verne’s Christmas party, we’re treated to a manic first-person perspective of wires getting pulled from the wall. Since Varney liked to stretch his acting abilities, Ernest also dresses up as an old woman and a mush-mouthed snake wrangler in the course of the film. It’s super silly stuff but Varney’s shenanigans are infectiously fun. 

As the title indicates, there’s really no doubt that Ernest is going to save Christmas. Yet the script does a weirdly good job of upping the stakes throughout the story. First, Santa has to retrieve his missing magical bag. After a number of roadblocks are overcome, such as a brief stay in prison, the missions changes. Now Santa and friends must convince the kid show house to accept the position as the new Claus. This includes talking him out of his starring role in a Christmas themed horror film. (Which includes a bizarre cameo from the Creature from the Black Lagoon.) After he’s convinced, yet another magical object is withheld from Santa Claus. This time, his sled goes missing minutes before Christmas Eve begins. It’s not elegant or anything but the script should be commended for keeping things moving at such a pace.

If Jim Varney’s goofball comedic energy weren’t the secret weapons of the “Ernest” series, their utmost sincerity had to be it. Like many Christmas flicks, the film’s themes resolve around belief. Ernest’s sidekick in this one is a teenage girl named Harmony. A runaway, she doesn’t have much use for Christmas cheer. Throughout the story, she steals Santa’s bag, hoping to pull a million dollars out of it. Of course, she comes around before the end. More interestingly, Santa Claus himself has a crisis of faith as well. Before convincing the kid show host, and after loosing his bag, it looks like Christmas really is over. A talk on a park bench with a Magical Black Man changes his mind. It’s pretty cheesy but weirdly effective. Some actual thought was put into this.

“Ernest Saves Christmas” is pretty clearly a low budget production. Most of the scenes are devoted to characters racing from one location to the next, the magic that happens being primarily of the off-screen variety. The most elaborate special effect in the early half revolves around the flying reindeer, which is illustrated with an upside down shot of the deer walking across a ceiling. I suspect money was being saved for the final act, where Ernest zips around the world in Santa’s sleigh. While the humor before this point was often goofy, the movie crosses over into outright shrill at this point. The sequence goes on and on too, the filmmaker obviously eager to get the most out of the crude effects.

Why Do I Own This?: Mostly because I enjoyed “Ernest Scared Stupid” and “Ernest Goes to Jail,” two delightfully dumb motion pictures that I own in a triple pack. (The third film in that set is “Ernest Goes to Camp,” a more dumb and less delightful film.) After coming upon “Ernest Saves Christmas,” I decided to give it a look as well. The movie is a totally harmless bit of kid friendly fluff. It managed to make me laugh a few times, which is probably the most an adult watching the film in 2016 can hope for. It didn’t encourage me to seek out “Slam Dunk Ernest” but I don’t regret owning the film, goofy as it is. [7/10]

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 3

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Last December, I reviewed “A Christmas Story.” That’s the ultimate example of a Christmas movie that was trashed by critics in theaters but, through repetitive cable showings, has developed the reputation of a holiday classic. (Despite it, you know, not being very good.) The same pattern would transform “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” – initially dismissed as another lackluster entry in an underachieving franchise – into a seasonal favorite. Its TV screening are so popular, it would spawn a direct-to-NBC sequel. Once again, I’ve somehow missed seeing the film before now. I’ve never actually seen any of the “Vacation” movies.

As the Christmas season arrives, the Griswald family is gripped by stress. Their house is crowded with distant relatives, all of whom delight in making the family miserable. More family members stop by, each new one more unpleasant then the last. Clark, the patriarch, is worried that his Christmas bonus has yet to arrive. The lights won’t light. The Christmas dinner is overcooked. The tree is burned to the ground. Everything goes wrong. With the Griswald clan ever be able to find the true meaning of the season, in all this chaos? Take a guess.

“Christmas Vacation” has another thing in common with “A Christmas Story,” which I think has contributed to its cable classic status. Both films have highly episodic plots, making them ideal for distracted holiday viewings. You can leap in at any time and find something entertaining, assuming you like the film. Truthfully, “Christmas Vacation” is little more then a series of gags loosely strung together. The premise, of a tension-filled family gathering, allows for many colorful characters and the wild antics they get into. The motivating plot incident, Clark’s concern for his Christmas bonus, only occupies a few scenes. The film even seems to acknowledge this structure, as many sequences are proceeded by shots of a advent calendar being opened. It’s a pretty lazy script construction.

A lot of people find “Christmas Vacation” hilarious. Personally, many of its gags strike me as grating. Some of the bits are utterly cartoonish. The tree exploding through the window, the opening car chase, Clark’s supersonic sled ride, the dehydrated turkey, the electrocuted cat, a rogue squirrel… It’s all so mean-spirited, so ugly. Many of the characters are similarly off-putting. Clark’s stepparents are hateful and spiteful. Uncle Eddie is a white trash grotesquery, who pumps shit into the sewer in one scene. (Credit were its due: Randy Quade’s performance is suitably unhinged.) A deeply senile grand-aunt has no idea where she is or what day it is, which seems more sad then funny. The film’s most mean-spirited gags are visited upon Clark’s neighbors. Though rich and slightly smug, they do nothing to deserve the constant punishment the script doles out to them.

If there’s anything I liked about “Christmas Vacation,” it’s Chevy Chase. Which is surprising, since Chase’s performances are usually lazy and self-satisfied. His slapstick antics, such as a tumble through a crowded attic, are uninspired. However, Chase’s way with dialogue counts for something. A Freudian slip filled conversation with a shapely shop clerk is mildly amusing, even if it escalates in unlikely ways. His increasingly profane rants are far more amusing. He tells his co-workers to kiss his ass in creative ways. As the vacation gets worst, his behavior becomes more unbalanced, eventually leading to a hilarious F-bomb drop. After discovering that no Christmas bonus is forthcoming, he unfurls a profane rant. That’s pretty funny, moments of natural emotion in an otherwise deeply artificial film.

I guess I just don’t get it, you guys. Maybe if I had watched it as a kid, allowing a cloud of nostalgia to float over the film, I would like it more. Or maybe “Christmas Vacation” is nowhere near as funny as people claim it is. I’m certainly not going to pick up any moose shaped glasses. (Which only appeared in one scene, by the way.) I probably won’t even check out the other “Vacation” movies, since this one did so little for me. I definitely won’t watch the Cousin Eddie starring sequel, which is disliked even by fans of this one. Others can celebrate the season however they please. My celebration won’t include dead cats and senile old ladies. [5/10]

The Twilight Zone: The Night of the Meek

“The Twilight Zone” is probably not the first TV show you’d expect to have a Christmas episode. The series usually specialized in deeply ironic and usually cynical morality plays, with supernatural trappings. Yet it appears Rod Serling had a soft spot for December 25th. “The Night of the Meek” concerns Henry Corwin, a mall Santa Claus who loves to drink a little too much. He drowns his sorrows because he can’t stand how greedy the holiday makes people. After getting kicked out of his latest job, he comes upon a bag in the streets. Inside is the perfect gift for everyone. Corwin walks through the impoverished streets in his Santa suit, handing out presents to everyone he meets.

On paper, “The Night of the Meek” probably sounds awfully maudlin. The main character outright states the episode’s themes, of giving to those who need it the most. His enemies forgive him after receiving presents. After emptying his bag, Corwin realizes the best gift of all has been saved for him: The gift of giving. In one of Serling’s patented twist, the final minutes see the drunkard literary becoming Santa Claus. What elevates the material is a genuinely sincere streak. The darkness of the holiday is acknowledge, in Corwin’s drinking and the poor families living on the streets. Everyone receives what they most desire, regardless of how they treated the main character. The spirit of forgiveness and charity informs the entire episode. This is carried over to the conclusion, which stays carefully on the other side of being too mawkish.

A big factor in “The Night of the Meek’s” success is Art Carney’s performance as Corwin. Carney seems genuinely intoxicated in many of the scenes, properly playing a totally soused drunk. His speech given to his employer, about the true reason for the season, is harsh but touching. Carney can also convey the character’s love of giving. His utter joy at discovering the magical bag, to passing out presents, is infectious. I also noticed John Fiedler as Mr. Dundee, the store owner. Fiedler is best known as the voice of Piglet but I also recognize him as Gordy the Ghoul from “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” After the overly crass “Christmas Vacation,” the totally sincere “Night of the Meek” is exactly what I needed. [8/10]

Friday, December 2, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 2

A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

Last December saw the release of a high-profile Christmas-themed horror story. I saw “Krampus” on opening day, wrote a positive review, and was happy to see it do decent box office business. However, in the days after that film’s release, I heard rumblings about another Christmas-themed horror movie. “A Christmas Horror Story” got the VOD/DTV release standard for most indie horror flicks. It managed to pick up some decent reviews and, at the time, some where even willing to declare it the superior Christmas monster movie. It’s been twelve months but I’ve finally caught up with “A Christmas Horror Story.” I wish I liked it more than I did.

My first problem with the movie is apparent early on. “A Christmas Horror Story” is an anthology film. On Christmas Eve, in the Canadian town of Bailey Down, four stories play out. A group of teens explore a Catholic school, abandoned after murders occurred there a year ago. After a father and mother steal a Christmas tree off a secluded property, their son begins to act strangely. A bitter family on the way home from a long trip are beset by the Krampus. At the North Pole, Santa fights off a zombie-style plague infecting his elves. William Shatner, as an increasingly sloshed radio DJ, plays host. The movie takes a really weird approach to its anthology format. Instead of keeping the stories self-contained, the film cuts between them. Thus, the individual stories’ momentum is constantly interrupted. The audience has to mentally juggle the different characters and plots. There’s no reason to do this, as the stories don’t comment on each other. Instead, the device is merely distracting and prevents the film from building up a decent pace.

Like all anthology movies, some of the stories in “A Christmas Horror Story” are better than others. With four tales to tell, it’s an even split down the middle. The first introduced story, about the haunted Catholic school, is definitely the weakest of the lot. First off, the Christmas connection is tenuous. A Nativity puts in an appearance. Eventually, it’s revealed that the vengeful ghost is that of a pregnant teen girl who died during a back-alley abortion. Obviously, the script is attempting some parallels with the birth of Christ. Yet to what purpose? Otherwise, this story is a collection of haunted house clichĂ©s. There’s some loud jump scares and lots of wandering around shadowy corridors. Some business about one of the virginal teens becoming possessed by the girl’s spirit emerges. Eventually, a pale faced ghost girl with black hair appears. None of the characters are that compelling. It’s pretty lame and definitely the section of the film that drags the most.

The second introduced story is probably my favorite of the bunch. The initial set-up, of the dad casually breaking the lawn in order to obtain the perfect Christmas tree, is a good starting point for a horror story. I was pleasantly surprised when the tale slowly revealed itself to be about a changeling. The parents’ probably should have been alarmed by the kid’s odd behavior – which includes scarfing down whole plates of spaghetti and stabbing dad with a fork – much sooner. The horror, of a parent realizing something is wrong with their child, connects the story with reality. The entire episode is set in a tiny apartment and primarily lit by the glow of a Christmas tree, which is a really nice effect. I also like Adrian Holmes as the stressed out dad who makes some questionable decision. The story ends on a nice note too.

The Krampus story doesn’t have a promising start. An asshole family pile in a car and travel to grandmother’s house. There, the boy breaks the elderly woman’s statuette of Krampus, which seemingly brings the demons wrath on them. Eventually, we learn that Krampus is hunting them because they’re all bad people. The dad has been embezzling money through a sham company. The son is a budding psychopath who likes to torture animals. The daughter is a kleptomaniac. Despite getting their just desserts, there’s something weirdly human about flawed, damaged people being targeted by the legendary beast. The Krampus design is cool too and much more traditional then the version that actually appeared in “Krampus.” He’s bone white, hella’ buff, and has long, curving horns. A notable gag involves the monster’s famously long tongue. There’s not much to this tale, and the ending is incredibly lame, but it’s still one of the better segments in the film.

Easily the showiest segment is the Santa-centric one. It’s definitely the best looking story in the film, shot through a moody greenish-blue lens. There’s a certain pulpy appeal to a bad ass Santa Claus slicing through zombie elves with a bladed crosier. And it is fun, for a while anyway. However, this sequence has nothing else to offer. The segments just scuffles pass one elaborate fight scene to another. Furthermore, George Buza’s performance as Santa is slightly off-key. He’s playing up the character’s warm and fuzzy attitude, which badly jives with the story’s content. The elves, after becoming possessed, scream profanity at the fat man, which is nowhere near as amusing as the film seems to think it is. The story concludes with a fight between Santa and Krampus. Sure, that’s neat. It also misunderstands the legendary figures’ relationship. Santa and Krampus aren’t arch-enemies. They’re partners. The twist ending, which ties into the film’s framing device, admittedly caught me off-guard.

I really like William Shatner’s framing device. His mood degrades from up-beat and full of Christmas cheer to weeping and drunk. This provides plenty of opportunities for some fine Shatner shenanigans. Overall though, “A Christmas Horror Story” was a bit disappointing. Obviously setting out to be the “Trick r’ Treat” for Christmas, it’s bizarre story structure and collection of mediocre stories sees it falling very short of that goal. [6/10]

The Real Ghostbusters: X-Mas Marks the Spot

With all the discussion this past year about “Ghostbusters,” I think the old cartoon show is worth a visit. Yes, of course, there was a Christmas episode of “The Real Ghostbusters.” While driving through a snow storm after a rough job in upstate New York, the four Ghostbusters accidentally travel through a time portal. This tosses them back to Victorian London. There, they stumble upon Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts of Christmas. Mistaking the situation for a regular haunting, the Ghostbusters zap and capture the spirits. Upon returning home, they discover a world that hate and despises Christmas, a belief popularized by a book written by… Ebenezer Scrooge! Now, in order to ensure the continued existence of Christmas, the guys must travel back in time and free the ghosts once more.

I re-watched a handful of episodes of “The Real Ghostbusters” earlier this year, in anticipation of our podcast episode on the topic. The series fluctuated between really dire stories that would barely pass kid’s show mustard and surprisingly entertaining, clever episodes. Luckily, “X-Mas Marks the Spot” mostly falls into the latter category. There’s very little slapstick antics involving Slimer, which was always the series’ weakest attribute. The humor is silly but in a good-natured way. Before freeing the Christmas ghosts again, Ray, Venkman, and Winston have to dress up as the spirits and convince Scrooge that they’re really ghosts. (Because, apparently, they know enough about “The Christmas Carol” story to replicate it but not immediately recognize it.) There’s also some amusing moments where Janine agrees to help Egon, not because she wants to save Christmas, but just because she loves him so much.

The emotional subplot, about a grouchy Venkman learning to love the holiday again, is standard stuff but handled in a fairly light manner. The sequence devoted to Egon entering the containment unit to free the ghosts features a surprise homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” some surreal architecture, and cameos from previously featured ghosts. The voice cast for this show was also better then average, as Lorenzo Music, Maurice LaMarche, and Laura Summer all do good work. It’s not the weirdest version of “A Christmas Carol” – it’s not even the weirdest version starring a proximity of Bill Murray – but it’s still a decently seasonal way to kill a half-hour. [7/10]

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 1

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

It’s interesting what films get called classics. Nobody talks about “Christmas in Connecticut” very often. It’s certainly not mentioned as often as “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” Turner Classic Movies usually shows it around the holidays but that’s about it as far as TV appearances goes. Yet to a certain portion of the population - classic cinema devotees, Barbara Stanwyck fans – it’s a well regarded seasonal favorite. It’s definitely a title I’ve heard bandied about every once in a while. Well, with the arrival of December, it’s time for me to finally check this one out.

World War II vet Jefferson Jones gets a hero’s welcome, after the boat he’s stationed on gets sunk. While recuperating from war injuries, his nurse reads him articles written by famous food writer, Elizabeth Lane. The nurse writes to Lane’s publisher, who invites Jones to join the writer and her family for Christmas dinner at her scenic farm. There’s only one catch: Lane is a fraud. She doesn’t live on a farm, doesn’t have a husband or baby, and can’t even cook. Her friend John Sloan, who just happens to own a country home in Connecticut, talks her into marrying him. Yet after Jefferson and Elizabeth developing a liking for each other, plans begin to change.

“Christmas in Connecticut” is a screwball romantic comedy, mining laughs out of unlikely romantic entanglements. From the moment Jefferson and Elizabeth first meet, you know they’re going to end up together. The roadblocks the story puts in their way – Sloan’s pushy pursuit of Lane, the totally one-sided affections Jefferson’s nurse feels for him – are obviously going to be discarded by the end. Yet the comedic chemistry between Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan goes a long way. The two have an easy going charm together, Lane clearly being enamored of the guy. Scenes devoted to the two bathing a baby or walking a cow, mundane activities that Elizabeth stumbles through, produces good natured laughs. An especially cute scene has the two embracing after getting buried in a snow fall. The romance comes off as light and amusing.

Elizabeth Lane pretending to be an expert cook and house wife, only to have to fake it when her publisher asks for proof, is definitely convoluted. It does provide a juicy role for Sydney Greenstreet, usually cast as intimidating figures in dramas. Greenstreet is great as the straight man, reacting with a stiff professionalism to the increasingly kooky situation. Through this subplot, “Christmas in Connecticut” even provides some points about the publishing business. Greenstreet is obsessed with keeping his magazine profitable and will even pressure Lane into having another baby to do it. In the end, his need to insure profits lets the heroes have a happy ending.

Greenstreet isn’t the only straight man in the movie. A judge, sent to authenticate Sloan and Lane’s marriage, is constantly dragged around by the comedic antics. He ends up dropped in the snow for his efforts. S. Z. Sakall is very funny as Felix, the five star cook that actually prepares Elizabeth’s recipes. While some of his antics are a little too broad, such as a scene devoted to flipping pancakes, Sakall is hilarious and charming every time he’s on screen. Not all of the film’s slapstick gags are successful, as a late in the film sequence devoted missing babies doesn’t provide very many laughs.

Another reason “Christmas in Connecticut” is worth checking out is for the excellent holiday ambiance. A huge, gorgeous Christmas tree features in one scene. Meanwhile, the majority of the film is blanketed in snow, the kind of fake classic movie snow that feels like December to me. At the same time, it doesn’t push the Christmas-y atmosphere too far, like too many modern flicks tend to. While calling “Christmas in Connecticut” a classic is slightly overstating it, it’s an amicable experience that leaves a smile on your face. It also got a remake in 1993 but that’s for another day... [7/10]

The Simpsons: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

When the first episode of “The Simpsons” aired on December 17, 1989, it’s doubtful anyone involved expected the animated series to become the longest running scripted program in television history. That first episode, it so happens, is also a Christmas special. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” introduces the family in the second half of December. Homer receives the bad news that there will be no Christmas bonus this year. After Marge spends the family’s saving to erase a tattoo Bart got, the family’s patriarch is forced to take a demeaning second job as a mall Santa. This also doesn’t work out too well either.

It’s interesting to go back to the very first episode of “The Simpsons” and see how much the characters have changed over the years. Homer isn’t a complete buffoon yet. Instead, he’s merely pathetic, a man who makes bad decisions but always means well. While Lisa’s brainy side shows in a hilarious moment, where she lectures her aunt on her father, she’s a little more mischievous then she’d become. The fanatical Christianity that would come to define Ned Flanders isn’t established yet. Instead, he’s simply Homer’s foil, somebody who is so perfect where Homer is so flawed. Even Marge is a little more uppity, yelling at her husband, then you’d expect. Mr. Burns only exist as a voice. Only Bart, a little hellion who disrespects but loves his family, and Patti and Selma, who never disguises how much they despise Homer, are totally established from the first episode.

“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is less focused on the belly laughs the later seasons would employ. It’s a little more low key, balancing chuckles with the despairs of real life. Some moments, like the father sadly observing his neighbor’s Christmas decoration, are genuinely sad. Sequences devoted to Homer doing his Christmas shopping in a dollar store or revealing how low his Mall Santa paycheck mines laughter from his pathetic situation. This peaks during the climatic scene, where he bets his money on an obviously lame race dog. Yet there are still traditional laughs in this half hour, like Bart behaving out of line at a Christmas show, Homer grumbling about Christmas lights, and Grandpa’s response to the Happy Elves Christmas special. And Maggie falling down, which is always funny.

The Christmas special displays humble roots for the iconic series. The voices are a little different and the animation is a little sketchier. The show is honestly so low-key that I can’t believe anyone was offended by it, back in 1989. It’s not even the funniest Christmas themed episode, as “Marge Be Not Proud” earns that title. However, it still does a good job of balancing personal pathos with comedy. It also brought Santa’s Little Helper into the fold and, hey, the show wouldn’t be the same without him. [7/10] 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2016)

18. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Last we saw Tim Burton, he had directed “Big Eyes,” an adult-skewing drama that was made with hopes towards winning an Oscar. Despite being a decent flick, it would strike out with Academy voters. After having his serious filmmaking dreams dashed once more, Tim Burton returned to the safe, welcoming arms of blockbuster film making. “Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children” is based off a young adult novel. Like many Y.A. adaptations, the film was made with the hopes of launching a franchise. Once again, we see the director painting a typical Hollywood script with his usual visual quirks.

His entire life, Jake’s grandfather has regaled him with stories about a magical house filled with extraordinary children. Each one had a strange ability, with a woman named Miss Peregrine watching over them. As a kid, he believed him. As a lonely teenager, he now believes his grandfather to be crazy. After receiving a startling phone call, he finds his grandfather dead, his eyes sucked out. Following a strange letter, Jake discovers his granddad’s stories were true. He discover the home of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children, kept in a time loop in the Welsh countryside. Jake is drawn into a world of adventure, as Peregrine and her kids are pursued by sinister forces.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” – has there ever been a more Tim Burton-y title? – filters a number of popular ideas through the director’s sensibilities. The concept concerns a wise adult overseeing a school occupied by uniquely gifted children, each one born with a different power or ability. Like, say, “X-Men.” Gifted young people learning to use their abilities also brings the “Harry Potter” series to mind, as does a seemingly normal youth entering a fantasy world. The time loop setting recalls “Peter Pan” and “Groundhog Day.” The villains are tall, skinny, pale, faceless, tentacled monsters in dark suits who prey on children. In other words, an exact quote of the Slender Man internet meme. Burton takes these well worn ideas and drowns them in gothic atmosphere, spooky touches, and quirky humor. This is a clear example of the director’s modern day work-for-hire mentality. You hire Tim Burton to add some Tim Burton flair to an otherwise typical project.

Yet all the spooky touches in the world couldn’t disguise the stock parts script. Once the villains are revealed, “Home for Peculiar Children” becomes a chase pictures. The heroes are on the run from the bad guys, hoping to rescue their house mother before the villains kill her. There is a time restrain in place, something about the kids being unable to stay outside the time loop for so long. In truth, all the talks of different time loops is very confusing. The characters seemingly leap from time period to time period, without much interior logic. Maybe I just wasn’t following things. But the rules of “Miss Peregrine’s” fictional universe seem ungainly and convoluted. It’s all in service of an unspectacular adventure narrative.

When the film works, it doesn’t focus on the Y.A. plotting. When settled into the weird world of “Miss Peregrine’s,” the movie becomes more interesting. A long portion in the middle focuses on Jake living with the Peculiar Children. We meet the quirky cast. The girl full of helium, the invisible boy, the burning girl, the child who broadcasts his dreams through a glass eye, the little girl with the mouth in the back of her head, and so on. We see them go about their day. One child uses her powers to grow giant vegetables. Another catches a falling baby squirrel at the exact same time every afternoon. At the end of the day, Miss Peregrine sets back the clock another twenty-four hours, sending an Axis bomb floating back into the sky. These sequences are kind of cozy, seeing unusual people make a life for themselves in their own strange world. I honestly wish Burton could’ve made a plotless film focusing on this environment, instead of moving on to the typical fantasy/adventure plot.

And our guide into this peculiar world is Asa Butterfield’s Jake. In some ways, Jake is a typical Burton-esque protagonist. At story’s beginning, he lives in a drearily mediocre Florida suburb. He’s a pale skinned outsider, an awkward misfit with no luck with girls. The biggest difference between Jake and “Beetlejuice’s” Lydia or “Frankenweenie’s” Victor is Jake isn’t interesting. Asa Butterfield, still best known for “Hugo,” adapts a ridiculous American accent. He wearily walks from scene to scene, reacting to the crazy things happening to him. Eventually, we learn that Jake has powers of his own, a unique ability to see monsters. This seems like a last minute attempt to make the character compelling. The film should’ve been about Miss Peregrine or her adoptees. Butterfield’s Jake is a snore.

Tim Burton has cycled through several dark haired, gothic muses. Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, Lisa Marie, and Helena Bonham Carter have all come and gone. Now it seems the director has latched himself to Eva Green. Green was the best part of “Dark Shadows” and now she’s the best part of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Miss Peregrine’s magical ability is over time. This leads to an punctual attitude, demanding a similar exactness from everyone around her. She snaps a pocket watch open and close through the film, to emphasize this. She brings a strict body language to the entire part, a perfect diction to her dialogue. Green balances these aspects with a wry sense of humor, displayed through a rakish smile or perfectly timed nod. When the character is captured mid-way through the film, it suffers.

Burton fills the cast with recognizable character actors. Such as Terence Stamp as Jake’s grandfather and Judi Dench as another leader of a peculiar household. Or Chris O’Dowd as the boy’s doddering father, Allison Janney as his stiff psychiatrist, and Rupert Everett as an effete bird watcher. While all the performers do good work, the peculiar children show more potential. The cast is too large, with twelve children under Peregrine’s watch. Most of them are just gimmicks, like the super-strong girl or the boy with bees in his stomach. Others just serve plot purpose, such as the invisible boy or the girl with the green thumb. Yet occasionally an interesting performer emerges. Ella Purnell shows some charm as Emma, the helium girl. Lauren McCrostie gets a few notable moments as Olive, the pyrokinetic. Hayden Keeler-Stone displays some humor as Horace, the glass-eyed boy. Finlay MacMillan probably gives the best performance of the kids as Enoch, the moody boy who can resurrect the dead.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” didn’t receive much attention when it was released this past summer. What people did notice about it was its villain. Samuel L. Jackson plays Mr. Barron, the shape-shifting bad guy who extends his life by eating the eyes of peculiar children. Jackson hams it up as usual, doing what he can to distinguish the part. What upset people was the film making its sole black character the villain, preying on the lily-white cast of heroes. I don’t think Burton or anyone else meant anything by this choice. It simply reflects Burton’s suburban view point, which is predominantly white. But the implications are unfortunate, to say the least.

Long stretches of “Miss Peregrine’s” are forgettable. It’s most memorable moments are the ones that reflect the director’s style the most. Enoch uses his death-defying abilities not to bring the sick back to death. Instead, he reanimates little morbid dolls, making the monsters fight for his amusement. (He references a past habit to do the same with corpses.) Later in the film, he brings too life a derelict boat full of skeletons. In Burton’s most recent homage to Ray Harryhausen, the skeleton warriors leap around, defending the heroes. While CGI is subbed in for stop motion, the effect is similar. Watching the skeletal goofballs get torn apart or leap around is infectiously fun. I wish the film had more fun stuff like that.

Burton’s tendencies as a filmmaker is apparent in other ways too. My favorite scene without skeletons involves a trip into a sunken ship. The slow motion dive down is well executed and the flooded interior is oddly eerie. A flashback shows Jackson altering his comrades with a mad scientist get-up that wouldn’t be out of place in a fifties sci-fi flick. One of his allies is shown to be a monkey woman, a bizarrely memorable touch. The climax of the film is set among a seaside carnival. The dark ride features prominently, as you’d expect. There’s a surprisingly lack of black and white spiral or jaunty tubas on the soundtrack. (Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson compose the score, presumably because Danny Elfman was busy.) Yet Burton’s aesthetic shines through anyway.

Some times, it even feels like Tim was trying to make a horror movies for kids. Aside from the skeletons and reanimated corpses, there are other grisly components. The villains’ habit of eating eyeballs is lingered on to a creepy degree. Among Miss Peregrine’s brood is a pair of creepy twins, with pale skin and clown-like faces. Later, we discover their masks cover petrifying medusa faces. The slender men’s initial appearance is played for horror. As they become more explained, they loose that spookiness. By the time they’re pelted with snowballs and cotton candy, the fear is totally gone. I can still see the younger audience members getting creeped out by this one, even if the adults will be left unaffected.

Ultimately, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a middle-of-the-road affair. It’s not a particularly bad film, being far too inoffensive for that. There are a handful of things about it that are really interesting. Like Green, the titular setting, and the quirky, spooky bits. These inspired elements are strangled by a formulaic and long-winded screenplay. It all adds to a film that isn’t likely to be remembered. “Home for Peculiar Children” did mediocre business domestically but turned into a modest hit overseas, prompting talks of a sequel. Tim Burton doesn’t sound very enthused about this possibility and neither am I. [Grade: C+]