Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 7

Elf (2003)

I’ve reflected before on the road some Christmas films take to becoming seasonal classics. If a movie prominently features holiday trappings, it’ll probably get shown on TV for a couple of Decembers. And if it’s not completely shitty, it has a fair chance of becoming a seasonal favorite. Which brings us to “Elf.” It was well received in 2003 and became a commercial success. Since then, television broadcast and theatrical screenings are reoccurring incidents come Christmas time. The film even spawned an animated follow-up just last year. Obviously people like the movie. But does “Elf” deserve its modern classic reputation?

Will Ferrell’s films are usually more character-based then plot-based. Often, they revolve around giving the performer an unlikely job title. Such as news anchor, race car driver, ice skater, or basketball player. In “Elf,” he fills the role of Christmas elf. The main visual gag is that Ferrell towers over his elven co-workers. This is because he’s not actually an elf, but rather a human who was adopted by Santa Claus. When Buddy the Elf learns of this, he heads to New York, in search of his birth father. Who is less then thrilled to see him. But, ah, will the power of Christmas reunite the family?

Throughout his career, Will Ferrell has played shouting, overly energetic man-children. Buddy the Elf fits nicely into this type. Some of these antics border on obnoxious. When screaming about Santa, chowing down on candy, or belching loudly, “Elf” feels a little too much like a hyperactive kids flick. The extended snowball fight is probably the film’s most unbearable antic. However, Ferrell’s physicality as a comedic performer frequently elevates the material. Such as an inspired bit that has Buddy navigating an escalator. Or the way he perfectly imitates Bigfoot while walking through Central Park. If nothing else, Ferrell is totally on the film’s wavelength. He has no problem playing a big kid, constantly overwhelmed with Christmas joy at every turn.

The film does a nice job of balancing the absurd and the whimsical. An especially nice touch has Santa’s work shop being surrounded by an intentionally artificial set. Outside, Buddy meets stop-motion characters like a Burl Ives-esque snowman, a trio of cartoon animals, and even a friendly narwhal. That whimsy takes a turn towards the more goofy once Buddy arrives in New York, focusing more on contrasting his bizarre behavior with the human world. Such as a friendship Buddy makes in the mail room, which eventually escalates towards a drunken dance number.  Or an encounter with Artie Lang as a store Santa. Another notable sequence features Peter Dinklage as a grouchy children’s author. This leads to an extended fight scene, probably the broadest moment in the film.

To support Ferrell’s infinitely goofy protagonist, “Elf” assembles a cast of notable names. James Caan is an entertaining straight man to Buddy’s ridiculous antics, even if he’s saddled with a standard character arc of learning to love his son. Ed Asner makes a fine Santa Claus, even if the part restrains his lovably gruff streak. Zooey Deschanel, pre-bangs, plays Buddy’s love interest. While it’s kind of weird to see a romance with such a clearly childish character, Deschanel has a charming energy that plays nicely off Ferrell. (No, it didn’t go unnoticed by me that this Christmas movie co-stars three Jews. Director Jon Favreau – also a Jew – seemingly comments on this, during his cameo as a Jewish dentist.) Faizon Love, Michael Lerner, and Andy Richter all have funny brief parts.

I probably wouldn’t consider “Elf” a perennial Christmas classic. The story beats concerning the power of belief and Christmas cheer are strictly stock parts. I’m sure I would get tired of it if I watched it every December. However, it is a solid kids flick, with a likable cast and enough laughs to appeal to the grown-ups. I can certainly see why it gained a following with memorable lines of dialogue like “You sit on a throne of lies.” “Elf” is good, not great, but I don’t regret spending a half-hour with it. [7/10]

The Angry Video Game Nerd: Bible Games

I wasn’t an immediate fan of “The Angry Video Game Nerd,” a retro-gaming review show/potty-mouthed comedy series. A friend showed me an episode in 2010 and I was slowly drawn in. While it’s easy to reduce the series to nothing but creative profanity – which, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of – creator/star James Rolfe has an amusing absurdist streak and a talent for charming, home-made special effects.

For his first annual Christmas special, the Nerd reviewed five Bible-themed games: “Bible Adventures,” “Bible Buffet,” “Super Noah’s Arc 3D,” “Spiritual Warfare,” and “King of Kings.” Each of the games are cheaply made knock-offs of popular titles. Such as “Super Mario Bros. 2,” “Legends of Zelda” or “Wolfenstein 3D.” Several of them feature odd cartage, ways to get around Nintendo’s lock-out features. Moreover, they are all bizarre, a fact that the Nerd vigorously comments on.

Yes, James Rolfe does have a way with filthy language. Comparing the game to “listening to your infant child puking to death,” his promise to punch a lion in the nuts, or the episode ending tirade of shit related puns certainly get laughs. His way with words is also apparent in the Christmas-themed re-write of the show’s theme song. Or his curt dismissal of one game as simply “bad.” But Rolfe’s bafflement and anger at the games are equally amusing. One game features a quiz with no questions. Another has arbitrary true or false questions. His frustration with video game snakes or amazement with Noah’s super strength and speed produce priceless reactions.

The games being so strange certainly make the Nerd’s over-the-top reactions seem believable. “Bible Buffet” is an adventure game featuring evil food enemies and seemingly no connection with Christianity. One segment allows you to murder a snowman. Rolfe’s reflections on throwing Baby Moses around, sheep sound effects, or an unconscious squirrel are amusing. “Bible Games” isn’t the most entertaining AVGN episode. Later ones would feature more elaborate gags and more memorable dialogue. But it is a pretty funny Christmas-themed surprise. [7/10]

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