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Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 14

The Ref (1994)

When it comes to non-traditional Christmas movies, I’ve obviously seen a few. My off-beat Christmas picks tend to veer towards the bloody and horrific. Occasionally though, an actually good R-rated Christmas comedy emerges. “The Ref” is a good example of this. Though set on Christmas Eve, it’s not about the holiday. Yet it makes great use of the holiday trappings. Though not popular upon release, “The Ref” has gained a cult following based on star Denis Leary and director Ted Demme. For those that need a dose of cynicism during their holly jolly holiday, it’s worth seeking out.

Lloyd and Caroline’s marriage is falling apart and rapidly. Lloyd’s controlling mother and failed business ventures weight on Caroline’s mind while he’s most bothered by her infidelity. Their son is at military school and is blackmailing one of his teachers. On Christmas Eve, Lloyd’s family coming over in a few hours, they finally decide to divorce. Meanwhile, a thief named Gus breaks into a home in the neighborhood, nearly caught by the house’s elaborate burglary trap. Gus winds up in Lloyd and Caroline’s home and takes them hostage, waiting for his partner to come through with a getaway plan. Despite this, the married couple don’t stop bickering and Gus is drawn into their conflict.

Every time I watch “The Ref,” I wonder if it was based on a stage play. It’s not but it certainly has a stage-like quality. Most of the movie is set in Lloyd and Caroline’s home. Long scenes – you could even call them acts – take places in specific rooms in the house. The cast is fairly small, a tight ensemble in few locations. Aside from the location and set-up, “The Ref” also has hugely stylized dialogue. One moment has Gus tossing both Lloyd and Caroline on the floor, still tied to their chairs, getting them to admit they’re both liars. A wonderful moment has the thief goading Caroline into revealing her hidden cache of cigarettes. While the family is there, Gus pretends to be the couple’s counselor, Dr. Wong. When Lloyd’s mom asks about this, a hilarious exchange follows. About every major character gets a monologue. Gus explains to their son that the life of a thief isn’t as fun as it looks. While tied to the bed, Lloyd explains the choices he’s made, after Gus says his life style is easy. During Christmas dinner, Caroline explains the St. Lucia ritual, in an extended, darkly funny moment. The best bit of writing is at the end, when Lloyd finally stands up to his domineering mother, assisted by a smashed Christmas tree. Considering the cast, the dialogue is frequently vulgar. Combined with the intentionally arch elements to the words, “The Ref” frequently feels Mamet-esque.

Weak actors probably wouldn’t be able to sell such intentionally exaggerated dialogue. Luckily, “The Ref” has a fantastic cast. Ted Demme had previously directed one of Denis Leary’s stand-up specials. Accordingly, the part of Gus seems tailor made for Leary’s abilities. His first scene involves him grumbling obscenities after being sprayed with cat piss, an amusing reoccurring gag. He ends the film screaming an extended, profanity-laced diatribe at his partner in crime. Many other times throughout the film, Leary is allow to unleash profane rants and interjections throughout the film. Kevin Spacey, a few years after “The Ref,” would win an Oscar for playing an emotionally repressed suburban father who finally releases that resentment. His role here is definitely similar, Spacey’s talent for sharp dialogue and withering stares getting used well here. Judy Davis matches Spacey, beat for beat, as an equally vitriolic character. The central trio is incredible.

“The Ref” easily could’ve functioned with just those three characters. In the second half, however, the film brings in the rest of the family for the trio to bounce off. This is probably “The Ref” at its most entertaining, as a group of unsuspecting normal people are exposed to Lloyd and Caroline’s therapy. Glynis Johns is perfectly, utterly hateful as Lloyd’s domineering mother. Christine Baranski is hilariously incredulous as Connie, the sister-in-law. The emotions overflow in that last part, the married couple airing their dirty laundry and weirdly finding a sense of resolution. How Gus’ story line is resolved is a nice touch too, bringing the movie back around to its Christmas setting and revealing this caustic story’s secret heart.

For all its razor-tongued dialogue and ability to dispense with bullshit, “The Ref” is ultimately a story about forgiveness and second chances. What’s more fitting to the Christmas spirit then that? While “The Ref” never quite escapes that stage-like feeling, Demme’s direction is plentifully cinematic. Even if the script and the actors are the star, this is still a good looking movie. Most people probably wouldn’t put on a profane, psycho-sexual story like this around the holidays. I don’t know, I kind of like that contrast. [7/10]

Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Rankin-Bass were responsible for some genuine holiday classics, whatever their actual quality may be. Rudolph, Frosty, and “A Year Without a Santa Claus” air every December and have for decades. Not every stop-motion holiday special the company cranked out has endured as a classic though. Easily the most obscure of the studio’s holiday specials is “Nestor the Long-Earred Christmas Donkey.” Yes, I know that title sounds like a joke but this is truly a thing that exist.

As with so many of Rankin-Bass’ specials, “Nestor” has a narrator telling the half-hour’s story. Santa Claus’ donkey, voiced by Roger Miller, explains the adventure of his ancestor, Nestor. A donkey from 1 A.D., Nestor is ostracized for his enormous ears. After his ears get him kicked out of his stable, Nestor and his mother are left out in the snow. Using her own body heat to shielded him from the cold, mom freezes to death. After meeting a cherub, the donkey ends up in the Middle East. There, fate has Nestor become the donkey that carries Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

The reason “Nestor” has slipped into obscurity isn’t just its ridiculous title. Instead, this is perhaps the most generic Christmas special Rankin-Bass had their hands in. The plot intentionally recalls “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” For example, when the outcast’s physical deformity ends up saving the day. That’s the idea anyway. Truthfully, Nestor’s ears only help a little bit. Tilly the Cherub is the one truly responsible for helping the donkey get our Lord and Savior to his birthplace. The donkey meeting that cherub happens totally by chance as well. Tilly is no Hermie the Elf either, as she only truly appears in a handful of scenes. Nestor is a weak protagonist, the plot motivated by other characters. The main character’s giant ears mostly just get in the way, as you’d expect.

Animation wise, “Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey” looks all right. The stop-motion is as creaky as it always is but the characters are admittedly well designed. The songs are entirely forgettable. “Don’t Laugh and Make Someone Cry” blatantly points out the special’s moral. Yes, it’s not nice to make fun of someone’s physical appearance. I don’t remember what the other songs where. The only aspect of this one that truly sticks out to me is Nestor’s mom sacrificing herself. That’s pretty dark for Christmas. Otherwise, feel free to skip by this one on your way to better known Christmas specials. [5/10]

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