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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 25th

The Nativity Story (2006)

The story of Christ, obviously, has inspired more art than any narrative in human history. While the Nativity play is an established part of Christmas tradition, there aren't as many film treatments of the birth of Christ. I suppose Jesus' life, crucifixion, and resurrection is more cinematic than his conception. Following the cultural phenomenon that was “Passion of the Christ,” studios realized hardcore Christians were a huge, untapped market. If an anti-Semite's Jesus torture movie could make 611 million dollars, surely a movie about Jesus' birth would make money too? New Line Cinema rolled out “The Nativity Story” in Christmas 2006, becoming the first film to premiere in Vatican City. Like most of the cynical attempts to replicate Mad Mel's success, “The Nativity Story” would see mediocre box office. But it's Christmas, so I decided to give the film a look.

“The Nativity Story” tells the story mostly as you know it, only occasionally adding new details or historical elements. King Herod is concerned by prophecies of a messiah, ordering the murder of newborn male children in Judea. A fourteen year old girl named Mary is betrothed to an adult man named Joseph. She receives a vision from an angel, saying she will become the mother to the messiah. She soon becomes pregnant afterwards, even though Joseph is forbidden from touching her for a year. After the Roman emperor decrees a census, everyone is ordered to return to their ancestral home. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem. By the time they arrive, Mary goes into labor. They seek shelter in a stable, a miracle about to occur.

“The Nativity Story” feels like a sermon. It's self-important, melodramatic, and maudlin. Catherine Hardwicke directed, after “Thirteen” but before “Twilight.” The film has about the visual subtly you'd expect from that pedigree. Hardwicke frequently employs slow-motion and lens flares, all in attempt to make the film look at overblown as possible. As if you could ever miss the importance of these events, the musical score incorporates several Christmas carols and religious hymns. At the same time, there's no splendor or awe to this story of miracles. The whole thing has a flat, brown-and-gray look to it. This miracle, this foundation of a worldwide religion and the biggest cultural force in history, looks awfully boring.

The story of the Nativity is pretty straightforward and, subsequently, probably not enough to fill a feature film. Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich's solution is to split this story in several different directions. While Mary and Joseph are experiencing visions, grappling with the ramifications of these events, and traveling towards Bethlehem, other events are happening. King Herrod, who acts like an exaggerated villain, makes threats and barks orders at people around. The Three Kings, who oddly act as the film's comic relief, track solar events and make their own journey. Events happening around the immaculate conception, similar miracles concerning the birth of John the Baptist, are given equal screen time. This ends up distracting the audience from the main point of the story.

Sealing the film's fate as a mediocre exercise is an uneven cast. Controversy was generated when Keisha Castle-Hughes, previously of “Whale Rider” and playing Mary here, became pregnant during filming. (Presumably, this was not an act of divine intervention.) Castle-Hughs' performance is wide-eyed but she's largely a prop for the bigger story. Mary is basically left to react to all the things happening to her and around her. A pre-fame Oscar Isaac plays Joseph, only getting a few chances to delve into the depth of what the man must have felt. Ciaran Hinds' slithering and sinister King Herod is certainly memorable, even if the film makes no attempt to correlate historical fact with Herod's status as Biblical villain. Not that I expected that...

Why did “The Nativity Story” fail to connect with audiences, when “The Passion of the Christ” became an object of public discussion and even shit like “God's Not Dead” become sleeper successes? I'd like to say it's because the Christian audience know when studios are cynically pandering to them but that's pretty obviously not true. Was the film too religious for non-denominational audiences and too mainstream for Christian audience? Maybe it's just because “The Nativity Story” was a maudlin and mediocre film, that doesn't seem that interested in spreading the gospel but has little else of interest to say. Merry Christmas, I guess. [5/10]

The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

Since I somehow made it through all of December without watching a single adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” I figured the 25th would be a good day to throw one in. Probably realizing material for Christmas specials was starting to run thin, Rankin/Bass turned to Dickens' well-trotted story. “The Stingiest Man in Town” squeezes Dickens' entire novel into 49 minutes. It hits all the major beats: Scrooge, Bob Crotchet, Tiny Tim, Nephew Fred, Marley and the three ghosts. It even throws in some underutilized elements, like Marley showing Scrooge an entire litany of chained spectres. About the only new elements Rankin/Bass includes are some songs and B.A.H. Humbug, a talking insect that narrates the story.

As far as adaptation goes, “The Stingiest Man in Town” is fairly pedestrian. It's hard to rate any version of this story, since we're all so familiar with it. Rankin/Bass doesn't really invest the familiar story beats with any new or exciting twists. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence is really abbreviated, causing Scrooge's transformation to have little meaning. Tiny Tim's role is also greatly cut down, further draining the emotional heart from the story. Otherwise, the telling is competent, if only barely adequate.

The songs range from forgettable to actively annoying. “Humbug!,” Scrooge's introductory number, is poorly performed. The title song has halting music and inane lyrics. “You Wear a Chain,” sung by Marley to Scrooge, at least has a sort of catchy melody. “It Might Have Been,” the song between Scrooge and Belle, is probably the worst in the movie. As a duet, it's very weak. The decision for “Yes, There is a Santa Claus” to link the Ghosts of Christmas Present to Santa Claus is mildly interesting, if obvious. “Birthday Party of the King” injects a religious element into this largely secular story.

Only two things really distinguishes “The Stingiest Man in Town.” The animation is pretty good and more anime-esque than Rankin/Bass' usual productions. The voice cast is solid. Walter Matthau was an inspired choice to play Scrooge, even if this material doesn't allow him to plum the character's depth very much. As far as narrators go, Mr. Humbug is fairly inoffensive. Tom Bosley provides him with a likable personality, if nothing else. “The Stingiest Man in Town” is one of Rankin?Bass' most forgettable specials, just because it adapts something so well known.  [5/10]

And that's the end of 2018's Christmas movie marathon. Somehow, I managed to keep this Christmas on schedule, more-or-less just as I had hoped. I don't have too much to say, other than I hope you enjoyed your holiday and are looking forward to the New Year. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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