Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 19

Happy Christmas (2014)

In the space of time it'll take you to read this review, Joe Swanberg will probably make another movie. “Happy Christmas” is the 16th feature film Swanberg has directed. Keep in mind, he made all of those films in about nine years. I don't know what Swanberg's secret is, how he's able to direct sometimes as many as four features in a single year. But I've got a theory. Most of his films belong to the “mumblecore” subgenre. If you don't know what that is, it refers to loosely scripted and plotted films made quickly and cheaply. They're usually about twenty-somethings, navigating romance and looking for their place in the world. I'm not a big fan of the style but some people told me “Happy Christmas” was pretty good. And, hey, it's December. Any movie with “Christmas” in its title is welcomed, I decided to give it a shot.

Jenny is an aimless twenty-something, unemployed and directionless. Around Christmas, she moves in with her brother, Jeff. Jeff is a successful filmmaker. Meanwhile, his wife Kelly has deferred her dreams of being a novelist to focus on raising their two year old son. Jenny shakes up the couple's life, as she encourages Kelly to begin seriously writing again. Jenny's rudderless ways – her tendency towards getting black-out drunk and making big mistakes – soon begins to interrupt the couple's wedded bliss.

If the above plot synopsis didn't make it apparent, “Happy Christmas” is a typical mumblecore flick. It has all the elements you associate with the style. The main character is a hapless, youthful hipster. An important subplot concerns Jenny's budding relationship with a male friend. Any time they get close to having sex, something spoils the mood. Nobody in the movie has a real job, as everyone is a writer, filmmaker, musician, or drug dealer. Moreover, Jenny never attempts to seek out employment. Characters frequently get drunk or high. Having said that, the film is more likable then the usual mumblecore flicks. It doesn't have any up-its-own-ass pretensions. There's a light conversational tone that makes up for the lack of plot.

This aspect is best displayed during – go figure – long dialogue scenes. My favorite of which revolve around Kelly's struggles to return to writing. Jenny talks her sister-in-law into writing a smutty romance novel, figuring that would be commercially viable. They collaborate on the project, along with Jenny's boisterous friend Carson. Watching the three women brainstorm ideas is amusing. Especially once the conversation turns towards what synonyms for genitalia are sexy. Or how hard writing can actually be, a difficulty lost on Jenny. It helps that the cast is full of charming people. Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskie, and even the widely disliked Lena Dunham are clearly having a fun time shooting the shit with each other.

“Happy Christmas,” like many of Swanberg's films, runs a compact 82 minutes. It rambles along amicably for most of that time. In the last ten minutes, the script bows to the pressure of narrative storytelling. Something must happen to direct the film towards its conclusion. In this case, it's two  pretty dumb events. Jenny has an argument with her boyfriend. Instead of staying there and having sex with her, he has to leave in the morning to visit family on Christmas. (Considering this is the super adorable Anna Kendrick we're talking about here, I would've found a way to do both.) Bummed out, she puts a pie in the oven, smokes a bowl, and passes out. The burning pie sets off the fire alarm, which angers Jeff. In a frank overreaction, he screams at his sister and kicks her out. Considering the mumblecore genre prides itself on naturalistic plotting, contrived events like these stick out badly. It also makes the shrug of an ending even more disappointing.

Still, the laid back charm of its cast takes “Happy Christmas” a long way. It made me laugh a few times and is, ultimately, too minor to offend. The Christmas elements are fairly tangential to the plot. Christmas trees, snow, and gifts appear in the background but barely affect the story. I'm still not really a fan of the mumblecore style, as a stronger script clearly would've improved the film. Still, it wasn't bad. By the way, Swanberg has slowed down slightly in recent years. Now he's only making two films a year instead of three or four. [6/10]

'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

Here's another Rankin/Bass special that I've seen advertised for years but have never sat down and watched before. You wouldn't think the original “A Visit from St. Nicolas” poem would provide much material for even a half-hour movie. Leave it to Rankin/Bass, experts at expanding short songs into television specials, to cook up a suitably bizarre plot around Clement Clarke Moore's classic tale. In “'Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the town of Junctionville has all their letters to Santa returned. Turns out, somebody in the town has sent the jolly old fat man a scathing rebuttal, forcing him to pass over the entire community. A clock maker, and the family of mice he's befriended, cooks up a crazy plot involving a giant clock tower to sate St. Nicholas' dissatisfaction.

The central premise of “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” makes Santa Claus look like an asshole. You wouldn't expect the jolliest of holiday icons to dismiss a whole town because of one asshole. He delivers coal to the naughty. He doesn't indiscriminately punish an entire community.  (Santa doesn't appear until the end, so we never see his side of things.) The contents of this inflammatory letter don't sit well with me either. The youngest son of the mouse family sent Santa the letter, claiming it's ridiculously to believe him in. The father's reaction is to tell his son to think less and feel more. This is dangerously close to anti-reason, if not anti-science, territory. 

Having said that, the music for “'Twas the Night” is pretty good. Joel Grey voices the clock maker, bringing his warm pipes to several numbers. Such as “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand,” which is cute and catchy, showing the family working together to solve their problems. “Give Your Heart a Try” is the number devoted to Father Mouse telling his kid to shut up with the science for a while. The lyrics are awkward as hell but the animation, which features the mice adventuring through the iconography of several holidays, is pretty neat. In truth, “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” is one of Rankin/Bass' best looking traditionally animated specials. The lines are crisp and clear. The character designs are appealing. The animation is pretty smooth, as far as these things go.

Like all these Rankin/Bass special, the plot is actually quite strange if you think about it. How did the writers look at the original poem and cook up a story involving talking mice and a magical clock tower? However, by the time the special gets to Santa Claus' arrival, it has won the viewer over. A collection of decent songs, some spritely animation, and enough schmaltzy holiday cheer will do that for you. [6/10]

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