Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 7

A Christmas Story (1983)

No matter how crappy a Christmas movie is, there’s always a sideways chance it will accidentally become a classic. When “A Christmas Story” premiered in theaters in 1983, it did modestly at the box office and reviews were mostly negative. At some point, Ted Turner’s company acquired MGM’s pre-1986 library, which included this film. Presumably because the movie had the word “Christmas” in the title, Turner started showing it around December on his various cable networks. These cable showing caused “A Christmas Story” to surge in popularity. Screenings became an annual tradition. These days, TBS airs a twenty-four hour marathon of it on Christmas day. Many people happily consider it their favorite Christmas movie. NECA even created collectible action figures from the film. Despite its omnipresence in pop culture, I have never seen “A Christmas Story” before. Having seen it now, I just don’t know if I get it, you guys.

As Christmas approaches, kids all over the country dream about what gifts they’ll unwrap on the 25th. Ralphie Parker knows exactly what he wants. The object he desires most in the world is a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Every adult he asks about the B.B. gun responds by saying he’ll “shoot his eye out.” Despite this, Ralphie maintains his desire for the toy rifle. Meanwhile, Ralphie and his family have other adventures around the holiday.

“A Christmas Story” was directed by Bob Clark, an eccentric Canadian filmmaker who made films as varying in content as “Porky’s,” “Rhinestone,” “Deathdream,” “Baby Geniuses” and – a very different type of Christmas movie – “Black Christmas.” The film is adapted from the short stories of anecdote writer Jean Shepherd, who also narrates the movie. Accordingly, “A Christmas Story” has a hugely episodic story structure. Though the whole film is tied together by Ralphie’s quest for the Red Ryder rifle, the script frequently meanders off on unrelated adventures. The only other fiber connecting the episodes is the film’s sense of baby boomer nostalgia. Set at some point in the forties, common cultural touchstones like “Wizard of Oz,” the “Little Orphan Annie” radio show, and a stay-at-home home moms are present and accounted for. If you have no stomach for these things, you’re likely to find it off-putting.

In truth, I found large swaths of “A Christmas Story” to be off-putting. The movie has a grotesque side that didn’t sit well with me. For some reason, Ralphie’s Dad is constantly chased by the neighbors’ dogs. At one point, he hits the hounds, making them yelp in pain. When Ralphie’s mom washes his mouth out with soap, it borders on child abuse. After receiving a C+ on a paper, Ralphie imagines his teacher as a cackling witch, an obnoxious gag. Ralphie’s daydreams are frequently annoying. An earlier scene has him imagining himself as a cowboy hero, shooting crooks in sped-up motion. Ralphie is happily a bastard, allowing his friend Flick to suffer physical harm at least twice and never feeling bad about it. That these moments are tied up with Jean Shephard’s sickeningly coy narration only draws attention to how foul the movie is.

The sequence with Santa Claus is more disturbing then any of the Santa-themed horror films I’ve seen. He croaks to his assistant in a mean-spirited way. He cruelly passes the children off his lap, tossing them down a slide. When Ralphie sits on his lap, the camera shoots the scene from a disorienting fish-eyed lens. The scene concludes with Santa kicking the kid in the face. The movie seems to delight in torturing its young protagonist. The constant echo of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” pays off at the end in exactly the way you’d expect. A famous moment has him being forced to wear a pink bunny suit. Notably, this scene has no other affect on the plot. It’s an ugly perversion of the typical holiday movie antics and not in a charming or interesting way. That “A Christmas Story” ends with that racist chestnut of Chinese people mispronouncing English is but one example of its rotten soul.

For everything that’s gross or dumb about “A Christmas Story,” there’s occasionally an interesting or touching moment. Ralphie waits throughout the film for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. When he finally receives it, he excitedly decodes the radio show’s secret message. His reaction upon discovering that the message is simply more advertising for the show’s sponsor is honest and earned. Another earned moment occurs when Ralphie finally beats the shit out of Scud Farkis, the school’s impossibly hideous bully. Afterwards, Ralphie cries, worried what his father will do to him and overwhelmed with emotions. Later, his mother sweetly glosses over the event, Ralphie receiving no punishment for snapping on the little asshole. As someone who dealt with bullies a lot in school, that’s a fairly realistic moment.

“A Christmas Story” even has a juicy supporting part for Darren “Forever in Our Hearts as Carl Kolchak” McGavin. Disappointingly, Ralphie’s dad is a buffoon. I really don’t get what all the hubbub about “A Christmas Story” is. The film is frequently annoying, uncomfortable, and hateful. As much as I want to despise “A Christmas Story,” it does have some notable elements. However, the film truly proves my maxim that what Christmas movies become annual classics is a completely random act of chance. [5/10]

The Tick: The Tick Loves Santa!

“The Tick” was one of those shows never truly appreciated in its time. Today, when there’s a viable market for adult-leaning cartoons full of surreal or absurdist humor, it would fit right in. Back in the mid-nineties, they stuck it on Saturday mornings for kids. Despite this, series creator Ben Edlund and his team still managed to sneak in plenty of weird, subversive elements. Take “The Tick Loves Santa!,” the series’ sole Christmas episode, for example. This is probably the only superhero cartoon to air on network TV to feature its titular hero beating the crap out of Santa Claus.

As the holiday approaches, the Tick is overwhelmed with holiday joy, visions of sugar plums dancing in his head. Arthur does his best to temper his roommate’s enthusiasm. Meanwhile, a bank robber flees from his latest mark, the cash shoved in a sack. He switches places with a corner Santa Claus, running off in the red and white suit. The Tick takes chase, unaware that the man is just dressed as Santa Claus and not actually Santa Claus. In the process, the bank robber receives a massive shock. This gives the Santa-dressed fiend the ability to replicate himself. Using this new abilities, the thug goes on a crime spread. The Tick does his best to defeat the supervillain but he finds it difficult to punch someone who looks like Santa.

“The Tick vs. Santa” builds on two basic gags. The first revolves around the oddness of a villain dressed like the beloved Saint Nick. Dubbing himself Multiple Santa, the villain’s army of clones monotonously chant “Ho ho ho!” One segment has them attacking a department story, decapitating a robotic Santa decoration. (Amusingly, the chain is called “Angry Joe’s.”) These events are commented on by a pair of sardonic security guards, who mumble softly about the nightmares the events will give them. Secondly, the episode derives humor from the Tick – a neigh-invulnerable superhero – believing totally in Santa Claus. When the impostor is electrocuted, he’s depressed, believing he murdered Santa Claus. His superheroic pals try to convince him that Santa doesn’t actually exist but it falls on deaf ears. His bemused mumbling, and inability to smack a smiling St. Nick around, provides plenty of amusement.

Of course, the show rewards the Tick’s loyalty. Santa himself actually puts in appearance. Amusingly, the mythological figure travels with an armed security force. When a formally skeptical Arthur tries to show Santa the pop-gun he received as a child, the Secret Service style elves tackle him. Santa is always ready with a gift though, giving away weirdly specific presents at every chance. The episode concludes when Multiple Santa attacks the local dam, giving himself a super-shock that results in a tidal wave (a “Yuletide” as the Tick calls it) of wicked Santas rushing the city. As always, the heroes prevail and the Tick gets to deliver a rambling but weirdly inspiring monologue. Overall, it’s silly fun, goofy enough to appeal to kids but with enough subtle gags to grab the grown-ups’ attention. [7/10]

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