Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 9


Holiday Affair (1949)

Robert Mitchum's greatest legacy as an actor is his villainous roles. Mitchum's name is synonymous with roles like Max Cady and Reverend Powell, psychopaths driven by deviant sexual desires to to prey on women and children. Of course, Mitchum played many heroic roles, in westerns, film noirs, and movies like “The Story of G.I. Joe.” Yet, even during the main years of his career, there's no Mitchum movie quite like “Holiday Affair,” a light-hearted romantic comedy set around Christmas. Rumor has it, Mitchum was given the role following his arrest for marijuana possession. Though a flop in 1949, Turner Classic Movies' seasonal airing of the film has granted it some more attention.

Connie Ennis is a single mom and a widower. She supports herself with a job as a comparison shopper, working for one store but buying items from another. It doesn't pay much but Connie and her son Timmy still have a degree of happiness. Connie also being courted by Carl, a successful professional man who wants to marry her. While buying an expensive toy train set, Connie catches the eye of Steve Mason, a clerk at a New York department store. Connie and Steve strike up a strange friendship, primarily because she blames herself for him getting fired. As Christmas approaches, the two men begin to compete for the woman's heart.

So how does Robert Mitchum fare as a romantic lead? One of those reason Mitchum's villainous roles are so compelling is because he was an incredibly charismatic performer. This evident in “Holiday Affair.” Steve Mason is a somewhat charming guy. When chatting with a squirrel or gifting a tie to a homeless man, he seems like a nice enough fellow. He has Mitchum's other roles can't help but cast an ominous shadow over the film. When he's playing with Timmy, it's impossible not to think of “Night of the Hunger.” When he sneaks up behind Connie and kisses her forcibly, “Cape Fear” comes to mind. This is no fault of the filmmakers or Mitchum. The parallels are just unavoidable.

As a Janet Leigh vehicle, “Holiday Affair” is a little less unintentionally creepy. As a widow struggling to provide for her child, Leigh is likable. She's vulnerable but never lets her character seem too weak. That she's usually resisting the romantic advances of one man or another emphasizes that strength of sorts. It also helps a lot that Leigh has fine chemistry with her co-stars. Perhaps most important is her interaction with Gordon Gebert, who plays her son, Timmy. Gebert is a genuinely adorable kid. The way he sneaks peaks at the gifts his mother brings home seem authentic and cute. He's not just a cutesy kid, since he actually tries to help his mom and Mason out at one point, advancing the plot.

Honestly, the cast is probably what keeps “Holiday Affair” afloat. As a romantic film, it's got some problems. Connie is pulled between two guys and neither seem great for her. Carl is emotionally manipulative and not great with kids. Steve Mason is a lot nicer, looser, and funnier. But he also has boundary issues, continuing to pursue the girl even after she reveals she has a fiance. This peaks during a supremely awkward Christmas party with her parents, where he announces his feelings for the girl in front of everyone. Luckily, the comedy aspects work a little better. When Mason ends up in a court house, the judge's reaction to the absurd details of the case got a chuckle out of me. There's also a mildly funny scene involving an over-sized pair of pajamas.

“Holiday Affair” has been overlooked throughout the years and that's about right. I just finished the movie a half-hour ago and the details are already starting to drift from my mind. The central idea behind the film, of casting Robert Mitchum against type, ends up backfire, at least from a modern perspective. (Considering at least one poster made the movie look more like a anoir than anything else, maybe it's just not a modern problem.) However, the movie's cast is solid, there's one or two funny bits, and the kid is cute. And, hey, the Christmas atmosphere is strong too, which I also appreciate. The film is apparently well regarded enough to receive a television remake in 1996. Fluffy and forgettable, but totally serviceable on those terms, “Holiday Affair” is worth your time. [7/10]





Darkwing Duck: It's a Wonderful Leaf

“Darkwing Duck” – Disney's mash-up of “Ducktales” and “The Shadow” – is a fondly remembered bit of nineties nostaglia. This probably has more to do with its insanely catchy theme song and infectious catch phrase – “Let's get dangerous!” – more than anything else. The few times I've revisited the shot, I've found that it holds up better than expected. Despite being set in a world populated with humanoid ducks and mammals, Christmas is still celebrated in the city of St. Canard. “It's a Wonderful Leaf” concerns Bushroot, a supervillain that can control plant life. After a bad experience at a shopping mall, the bad guy begins a war against the holiday, using Christmas trees as his soldiers. Naturally, Darkwing Duck has to step in and save the day.

“Darkwing Duck” still works primarily because of its excellent voice cast. Jim Cummings' scratchy voice brings a nice manic energy to Darkwing and his civilian identity. His delivery of the hero's alliterative proclamations are especially amusing. The late great Christine Cavanaugh – who also voiced Chuckie Finster, Babe, Dexter, and Bunnie Rabbot – voices his mischievous daughter, Gosalyn, who mostly gets to react sarcastically to her dad's crimefighting antics. Naturally, she learns a lesson about charity before the episode is up. Dom DeLuise-soundalike Tino Insana plays Bushwick as a surprisingly sympathetic bad guy, who mostly begins his crime spree to being rejected by society.

It's a good thing that the voice cast is so strong because “It's a Wonderful Leaf” is not the show's most inspired half-hour. There's a few solid gags. Darkwing gets his beak stuck to a cold fire hydrant and, during a sleigh-assisted chase scene, has a gift box dropped on his head. Otherwise, the humor is not especially strong. The dialogue is full of puns, many of which are groaners. A bully character gets repeatedly dunked on, in a way that almost feels mean-spirited. A flying sled gag goes on for way too long. So this is obviously a program intended for young kids but it still made me laugh a few times, so I'll call it about even. [6/10]



Saturday, December 9, 2017

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Santa with Muscles (1996)


Once again, my “Why Do I Own This?” column forces me to consider the career of Terry “Hulk” Hogan. Not his career as the Man Who Took Down Gawker with a Racist Sex Tape. Nor his career as perhaps the most iconic pro-wrestler of all time. I'm talking about that brief period in time when Hulk Hogan was allowed to star in movies. Due to his all-American face antics inside the ring appealing primarily to kids, most of Hogan's movies aimed for the primary school crowd. After the doldrums of quasi-hits like “Suburban Commando” and “Mr. Nanny,” Hogan's acting career more-or-less bottomed out with “Santa with Muscles.” The yuletide kiddie comedy is widely considered one of the worst Christmas movies of all time. Even as a kid, when I could reasonably consider myself a fan of Hogan, I missed this movie existing. Despite all this, for some reason, “Santa with Muscles” resides in my DVD collection. Good God, why?

The Hulkster stars as Blake Thorn. A bodybuilding millionaire who has built his fortune on diet supplements and narcissism, he goes on a crazy motorcycle-and-paintball trip with his cronies. Their riotous adventures ends up attracting the police. Blake ducks out of the high speed pursuit and into a shopping mall. By the way, it's close to Christmas, though the snowless California December makes that hard to guess. Blake grabs a Santa Claus suit as a disguise. He then bumps his head and catches that type of amnesia that only exist in movies. Blake wakes up believing himself to be Santa Claus. He heroically foils a robbery before becoming the defender of an orphanage threatened by a mad scientist.

In many ways, “Santa with Muscles” is a typically dumb kids movie. The script is so loaded with cliches, that you wonder if the writers put any effort into it at all. The entire premise hinges around a bump on the head causing amnesia, the laziest kind of story set-up you can think of. A scrappy hero coming along to protect an orphanage from an evil land developer is another sappy, cliché story idea. Naturally, Hogan's Santa Claus landing in an orphanage allows him to have cutesy relationships with the little kids. Including an adorable, lisping little girl who likes to sing songs in the pews. Upon regaining his memory, Blake finds his cold heart has been entirely thawed by the ragamuffins. Many of the action scenes are goofy and comedic, functioning on the simplest form of slapstick. All of these are cliches of the highest order, coughed back up with minimal effort.

At the same time, “Santa with Muscles” is also a really weird and, occasionally, interestingly stupid movie. Ed Begley Jr.'s bad guy is introduced ordering his henchman to torture another man. The aforementioned henchmen each have an odd gimmick. One guy is a doctor that knows kung-fu, another wears a beekeeper outfit and sprays methane gas. The sole female has electric superpowers. The quartet drive around in an ice cream truck, for unexplained reasons. It almost seems like “Santa with Muscles” was trying to be a superhero movie of sorts, as one of the orphans designs Blake a costume and a utility belt. (She's inspired by her favorite comic book hero, named Mega Man presumably because the screenwriters were unfamiliar with Capcom.) Things get even weirder when one orphan mentions magical fairies living in the church. This precedes the heroes discovering a secret cavern located under the building... A cave full of a rare type of hugely valuable crystals... Crystals that explode when struck or stepped on. I really didn't see that insanity coming.

In “Santa with Muscles,” Hulk Hogan essentially has to play two separate characters. This stretches Hogan's limited acting abilities far past their breaking point. In his early scenes, as the narcissistic millionaire, Hogan acts broadly. He coughs up list of asshole life rules, like a less murderous/more tanned version of Patrick Bateman. After receiving his bump on the head, Hogan begins playing Blake as a slightly clueless defender of the innocent. The highlights of Hogan's acting include a stilted television interview, which is less amusing and more genuinely awkward, and a singing scene. Yes, the Hulkster sings an insipid pop song with the little girl called “Angel Baby.” Hogan's singing abilities do not inspire much awe.

As in “Suburban Commando,” “Santa with Muscles” packs its supporting cast full of talented performers, in order to make up for Hogan's limited star power. Ed Begley Jr.'s performance as the bad guy, a germaphobe who eventually walks around in a space suit, is manic and goofy. He certainly acts circles around Hogan. Steve Valentine happily hams it up as Doctor Blight, the kung-fu kicking doctor who swings his stethoscope like a nun-chuck. Character actor Don Stark appears as Lenny, the mall elf who becomes Blake's unwitting sidekick. Though initially hoping to simply steal Blake's millions, Stark's Lenny always comes around to the ways of love and charity. Clint Howard gets the film's sole intentionally funny line, as a beat cop incensed by Blake's “Santa fraud.” Lastly, future star and sex symbol Mila Kunis appears as the snarkiest of the orphans. It's clear to see Kunis' talent, even when cracking lame jokes about comic books. She has a likable energy and clearly loves performing, even at this age.

Why Do I Own This?: I own “Santa with Muscles” mostly because I enjoy having a movie called “Santa with Muscles” on my DVD rack. Is it a terrible, incredibly stupid movie? Absolutely. Yet, as obviously bad as the film is, there's something weirdly endearing about how dumb it is. There's a lot of weirdness in this dumb-ass kid's movie, which contrasts in an interesting way with its sappy elements. Calling it one of the worst Christmas movies of all time is understandable but not entirely fair. There's probably holiday stuff out there equally dumb but lacking this film's half-witted moments of oddball inspiration. [5/10]

Friday, December 8, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 7


All is Bright (2013)

I can't recall how “All is Bright” got onto my holiday watchlist. It's the third film from director Phil Morrison, whose “Junebug” was critically praised when it came out. I, however, have never seen that movie. I vaguely remember seeing it on store shelves. I guess the thought of a slightly downbeat Christmas-themed comedy, starring Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd, was enough to appeal to me? Whatever the reason, I decided to give it a watch this December. While the film's reviews were mixed, I actually had a good time with it.

It's December and Dennis, a Canadian thief, has recently been released from a four year stint in prison. He attempts to patch up his relationship with Therese, his ex-wife. Instead, he discover that Therese has told their daughter, Michi, that he's dead. Moreover, she's also begun a relationship with Rene, Dennis' former partner in crime. Though deeply hurt, Dennis is committed to going straight. He teams up with Rene, who has gotten a gig selling Christmas trees in New York City. Business is slow and the men have to grapple with their personal and professional failures.

“All is Bright” has a fairly melancholic tone. The world keeps presenting Dennis with challenges, seemingly trying to force him back to a life of crime. The two have trouble selling trees at first, largely thanks to a flashier tree business across the street. While using a bathroom at a near-by dinner, the vulgar owner kicks him out. Rene is more upbeat but eventually cracks under pressure. Despite this, the movie frequently has laughs. Rene's ringtone, a chirping pop tune, becomes funnier and more incongruous every time we hear it. A stand-out scene has Dennis confronting Rene over Therese. At the same time, a pair of fratboy bros are attempting to buy a tree. It's not long before the dudes start commenting on the situation. Eventually, Dennis takes his rage out on an inflatable elf instead. These are not exactly gut-busting moments but I found them pretty funny.

One of the greatest pleasures of the film are its performance. Dennis is an almost prototypical Paul Giamatti performance. He's grouchy and slightly off-putting. Yet he's trying to do better, which is represented by the character struggling to quit smoking. Ultimately, it's apparent that Dennis' prickly exterior has a lot to do with bitterness and disappointment. Paul Rudd's Rene is an ideal contrast. He's sunny and upbeat. Rudd manages to make that old comedy chestnut of a goofy Canadian accent amusing again. Sally Hawkin appears as the foul-mouthed Russian maid that Giamatti befriends. Their scenes together are delightful. Hawkin makes the character's brutal honesty, like when she tells Dennis to take a sweater because he stinks, endearing instead of annoying.

“All is Bright” has a few flaws. Not too much happens, story-wise. This is a film primarily devoted to two guys standing around, arguing with each other. The script is also fairly predictable. When the guys' Christmas tree business finally turns around, and they make all the money they need, it's easy to guess that something will happen to the cash. (Though that doesn't make the inevitable loss any less felt.) It's not difficult to imagine Dennis' criminal relapse either. However, I found the movie's themes of forgiveness – self-forgiveness, especially – touching. Mistakes are made but they are also moved past, allowing everyone to grow closer together.

That theme is also befitting the Christmas setting. Despite the story not really concerning the holiday that much, “All is Bright” piles on the December atmosphere. The soundtrack is filled with jazzy and low-key renditions of classic Christmas songs. An especially inspired inclusion is Tracey Thorn's “Joy,” a powerful and lovely song about the unifying power of the holiday, which factors into separate scenes. “All is Bright” is probably too prickly, perhaps by design, to become a holiday classic. However, I found myself enjoying, mainly for the strong performances and the more emotional. [7/10]



Space Ghost: Coast to Coast: Girl Hair

During last year's review of “A Space Ghost: Coast to Coast Christmas,” I referenced the series' other Christmas episode, promising to review it the next year. And, thus, the time has come. “Girl Hair” is an especially nonsensical episode of the always absurd series. The special guest is Hanson, back when they were the prettiest of the pretty boy bands that were popular in the late nineties. The guys' long, girlish hair inspires Space Ghost to go on a quest to find a comb for them. Really dumb and goofy shenanigans ensue.

Most of “Girl Hair's” humor arises from Space Ghost acting extremely strange. Hanson, to their benefit, are willing to play along. They ask to be blast with his power bands and seem to enjoy it. Afterwards, Space Ghost takes them camping and regales them with a ghost story about a mad combing. They then visit his apartment, travel through space, sing nonsense songs, and become accessories to holiday-related manslaughter. Zorak, meanwhile, spends most of the episode trying to get new teeth so women will like him. I have no doubt that some will find this insultingly stupid but it greatly tickles my funny bone.

What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Santa Claus appears in an especially disturbing digression near the episode's end. On his way back to the studio, after driving Hanson around, Space Ghost runs over what he thinks is the Tooth Fairy. Back home, he's met by old St. Nick... Who praises Space Ghost for killing the Tooth Fairy. Because he wants to steal chidlren's teeth, to make bizarre and disturbing toys. Santa is then revealed to be Bizarro Santa, a grotesque and throbbing monster version of everyone's favorite holiday icon. The episode then goes completely nuts. When this show first aired, it was one of the weirdest things I had ever seen on television.

“Girl Hair' is not a five-star Space Ghost experience. However, that incredibly weird ending earns it some major points. And, yes, I realize this is really stretching the definition of Christmas-related media. But this is my blog and we play by my rules. That's the way Space Ghost would want it. [7/10]


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 6


Better Watch Out (2016)

The advent of digital streaming has been a huge benefit to the independent horror movie. The ease of digital releases, combined with the eternal popularity of the horror genre, has made it easier than ever for smaller films to sneak onto the market. Naturally, the Christmas themed horror picture – an even rarer beast – has benefited from this as well. Surprisingly, there have been three new holiday horror releases this year. I've already talked about “Lake Alice.” There was also an Elf on the Shelf inspired horror movie, which seems inevitable. In there somewhere was “Better Watch Out.” Going into the movie, I knew nothing about it, other than it was a December-set horror film and had gotten decent reviews. This lack of knowledge actually helped me out. “Better Watch Out” is one of those films improved by knowing little about it.

Twelve-year-old Luke has a crush on his babysitter, seventeen-year-old Ashley. Ashley is leaving town for college soon. Knowing this, Luke hopes to make a move on the girl. His parents go off to a Christmas party of some sort, leaving the boy alone with the object of his desires. However, what both hoped to be a normal night soon takes a strange turn. The house receives threatening phone calls. A pizza order nobody called for shows up. A prowler is seen outside the house. Soon, a brick is thrown through a window and a threatening man with a guy lurks through the building. Ashley and Luke work together to survive but soon discover that things are not as they appear.

“Better Watch Out” begins, appearing to be one type of horror movie. The home invasion horror flick was briefly popular at the end of the last decade, with “Them,” “The Strangers,” and the remake of “Funny Games” all coming out close to each other. At first, “Better Watch Out” appears to be an especially colorful and light-hearted example of this subgenre. The first forty minutes is devoted to Luke and Ashley hiding inside their own home. There's solid suspense, as the two hide behind a closed door or inside a closest as the attacker wanders into the room. The film even induces some squirms, such as when Ashley tumbles from an attic entrance with spiders crawling across her face. The faint glow of the Christmas light, and the reflection off the snow outside, lends a slightly different feeling to these moments. The interaction between Ashley and Luke, often veering between hysterics and catty dialogue, mixes in some humor.

It's well done but turns out to be an elaborate misdirect for where “Better Watch Out” is actually going. In fact, if you're interested in “Better Watch Out” and haven't heard much about it, I suggest skipping the rest of this review. About midway through, Ashley discovers the home invasion was invented by Luke. In a turn recalling Mendel W. Johnson's “Let's Go Play at the Adams',” the babysitter is bound and her ward is revealed as a psychopath. In addition to perhaps saying some things about male entitlement, “Better Watch Out” becomes an effective battle of wills. Luke plays twisted games while Ashley tries to outsmart him. There's also a slight slasher element, as boy exterminates witnesses and romantic rivals. One death scene involves probably the most morbid homage to “Home Alone” you'll ever see. Another plays out to “Carol of the Bells,” a Christmas carol I've always thought sounded a little spooky.

Buoying the film is a strong pair of central performances. Olivia DeJonge – who is carving out a decent career as a scare queen with this film, “The Visit,” and “Scare Campaign” – plays Ashley. (Interestingly, DeJonge's “Visit” co-star, Ed Oxenbould, appears as Luke's smart-ass friend.) She strikes a really nice balance between a likable girlishness and a stronger sense of self-preservation. Once the twist come, it becomes especially easy to root for her. Levi Miller plays Luke and is similarly good at playing the twist. He's convincing as both a precocious pre-teen as well as a conniving psychopath. The two play off of each other so well. And an element that reminded me of old eighties horror movies, the only well-known actors appear in bit parts. Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen play Luke's unaware parents.

“Better Watch Out” was originally named “Safe Neighborhood.” Which is a fairly non-descriptive title but does point out that the film's Christmas elements are relatively minor. There's some snow, some decorations, and some festive songs but you could remove the holiday stuff and the plot would be entirely unchanged. Despite that, I really liked “Better Watch Out.” The script is really clever, catching the audience off-guard in a way that's rare for the horror genre. I don't know if it will become a new holiday horror classic but I really had a good time with it. Check it out if you can! [8/10]



Olaf's Frozen Adventure (2017)

At the end of November, Pixar released their latest masterpiece. “Coco” is a visually beautiful and incredibly powerful story, about how we remember loved ones, the value of family and art. It's also a movie explicitly concerned with the autumn festivals, taking place on the Day of the Dead. Despite this, and seemingly because they were worried that a film with only Latino characters wouldn't be popular, Disney stuck “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” in front of the movie. That's despite the “short,” obviously meant to be a television special, running for over twenty minutes. The short has been very poorly received and Disney has already promised to remove it from the remainder of “Coco's” theatrical release. But it's Christmas related, so I decided to review it here.

I'm reasonably fond of “Frozen” and even I find Olaf the happy snowman a little grating. Building an entire short around him was, perhaps, a miscalculation. This “Frozen Adventure” concerns Olaf going around Arendelle, collecting holiday traditions, because Elsa and Anna have forgotten their own. Conceptually, that would've let the filmmakers explore different winter festivities. And it sorta' does that. We see a Jewish family spin a dreidel. Another family celebrate St. Lucia's Day. But the short mostly focuses on less specific traditions. Such as decorating a tree, eating fruitcake, or knitting Christmas sweaters. This leads to many scenes of Olaf reacting to various new characters, in various loud ways. “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” leans on the frantic and shout-y way too much.

Though hey were widely praised, I honestly thought the songs was one of the weakest parts of “Frozen.” Disney couldn't even get the original film's song writer's back for this short. And that really shows. The songs in “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” are instantly forgettable. And the film is mostly songs. The main song, “Ring in the Season,” is reprised three whole times. The lyrics are repetitive and overly literal. Even the singers don't seem that invested. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell clearly phone it in.

So is there anything I liked about “Olaf's Frozen Adventure?” During one of the songs, there's a pretty neat sequence done as if it's a Christmas sweater. There's one or two decent bits of physical comedy, during the scene where Olaf causes a sled to crash into a gorge. Otherwise, “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” feels tortorously long at only twenty-one minutes, a sappy and largely unnecessary extension of an already popular brand. Luckily, “Coco” comes immediately afterwards to wash that bad taste out of your mouth. [5/10]


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 5


The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

I guess it's just not Christmas without Jimmy Stewart. Over the iconic star's illustrious career, he managed to appear in three Christmas classics. “It's a Wonderful Life” is the big one, of course. I covered “Bell, Book and Candle” last year, which is a charming film though barely related to Christmas. Which brings me to “The Shop Around the Corner.” Though not as widely recognized as “It's a Wonderful Life,” it's nearly as beloved. It's been ranked by some among the best movies ever made. Despite this reputation, I've never seen it before. Looks like December is the right time of year to catch up with this one.

Set in Budapest, for reasons that don't affect the plot or characters in any real way, the film concerns the staff at Matuschek and Company, a small store specializing in leather goods. Alfred Kralik is the most successful salesman at the store, despite his cranky attitude. Klara Novak is a young woman that comes into the shop one day, looking for work. She's quickly hired. Klara and Alfred don't get along, his perfectionism bugging the nervous girl and vice-versa. Meanwhile, both of them have begun a relationship with a pen pal. The man Klara writes to is sensitive and intellectual. The woman Alfred communicates with is sweet and endearing. Neither are aware that the letter writers they're falling in love with are each other. As the Christmas season approaches, both begin to suspect the truth.

If “The Shop Around the Corner” didn't invent the romantic-comedy troupe of two people starting out disliking each other, and ending up loving each other, it certainly helped popularize it. Unlike most examples of this story type, there's few clues that the two characters like each other at all. In fact, Alfred and Klara's relationship is straight-up antagonistic at first. He nearly pushed her out of the store upon meeting. While hanging out around the stock room, he needlessly attacks her. This isn't the kind of cute sexual tension you usually see. Instead, Klara is an anxious girl and Alfred treats her like an asshole for no reason. This makes the eventual revelation that they've been writing to each other hard to read. Kind of difficult to root for these two to get together when they've been awful to each other for the whole movie. At least it builds to some cute scenes. Such as when Alfred tries to convince Klara to buy her suitor something else for Christmas. Or the final scene, when Klara discovers the truth.

To call “The Shop Around the Corner” a comedy is overstating it a bit. There's few yuks to be found here. Instead, the film is more concerned with capturing a slice-of-life feeling. We see the everyday struggles of the employees. Many of them have few funds, this job being their only source of in-come. One of the workers has a new baby while Klara was recently let go from her other job, needing the money badly. This leads to an underwhelming subplot, about the shop owner believing his wife is having an affair and nearly killing himself over it. (Which isn't, you know, hilarious.) However, it pays off on a touching conclusion. On Christmas day, the employees are allowed to go home early... Except for an employee who is new in the country and has no family near-by. That's when the shop owner invites him to his dinner instead. It's mildly touching.

“The Shop Around the Corner” probably works best as a vehicle for its stars. As Alfred, Jimmy Stewart has an interesting character arc. Beginning as a total grouch, we slowly see him soften. We eventually understand that his grumpiness arises out of how much he cares for his co-workers. Stewart is, naturally, highly charming and shows a quiet humor in the later scenes. As Klara, Margaret Sullivan projects a vulnerable humanity. This is most apparent in the scenes when her constitution shakes up a bit, by the various traumatic events around her. Ultimately, the two play off each other really well, even if their relationship seems a little too nasty as first.

I didn't like “The Shop Around the Corner” as much as its reputation as a classic implies. However, I will say this much: The film certainly makes the most of its Christmas-y atmosphere. There's some really nice snow and tree action in the last half. More of the film revolves around December traditions than I expected. As it is, the film mostly survives on the charms of its lead and a few touching moments. Otherwise, the script seems a bit uncertain about its goals. Then again, this is a classic and I'm just some random rube on the internet, so what do I know? [6/10]




A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All (2008)

Boy, things sure have changed since 2008. Back then, I was a regular watcher of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Especially the latter, which had Colbert's amazingly charming screen presence and coated the awful news in a more appealing layer of absurdity. Now, Jon Stewart is gone from “The Daily Show” and I rarely bother with it. Colbert is hosting “The Late Show.” The country, meanwhile, has entered a new age of crypto-fascist Trumpian dumbness. Nearly a decade later, the satirical absurdity of Stephen Colbert, the character, is essentially indistinguishable from Fox News reality. But never mind that. In 2008, Colbert and Comedy Central put together a Christmas special. I haven't seen it in a few years and decided to re-watch it, wondering how the times have changed my perception of the show.

“A Colbert Christmas” is a parody of a genre of television that didn't even exist a decade ago. The special is an absurdist homage to the old-timey holiday special, the kind that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope rolled out annually for years and years. It's about Stephen Colbert: The Character, played by Stephen Colbert: The Real Person, being trapped in his winter cottage by a bear. There, he's met by festive visitors, who greet him with songs and jokes. The special is committed with this ridiculously artificial aesthetic. There's a number of dicey green screen effects. The plot is a loose excuse to string together a series of set pieces. The camera pans through the clearly fake cabin set. Colbert throws chestnuts at his fireplace, composed of a televised yule log. Each guests is greeted with Colbert explain who they are and applause. Colbert speaks directly to the audience throughout and it concludes with him receiving the DVD of the special you're watching.

It's an amusingly spot-on riff on a bygone type of entertainment. Honestly, the special's commitment to copying the look and feel of old Christmas specials is probably a determent to its enjoyability. It's likely a lot of the people who watched this in 2008 missed the joke. Luckily, Colbert throws other general bits of goofiness. Such as the reoccurring threat of a bear outside his cottage, building off a running gag from “The Colbert Report.” The special itself has a running gag about Colbert finding himself under the mistletoe with his various guests. These two gags meet at the end, when Colbert and the bear find themselves smooching under the mistletoe. There's frequent cuts to Elvis Costello at the studio, wearing ridiculous costumes and commenting on the appearances of goats. The jokes come consistently enough to entertain even if you have zero familiarity with vintage Christmas specials.

Just as with those old Bing specials, the script essentially functions as a linking device between musical numbers. In this regard, “A Colbert Christmas” is somewhat uneven. The songs are generally amusing. The opening number, in which Colbert hopes to coin a new Christmas standard and reap the residuals, got a laugh. A song where Jon Stewart attempts to interest Colbert in Hannukah is probably the comical highlight of the hour. John Legend's “Nutmeg,” a double entendre about everyone's favorite eggnog topping, is performed perfectly straight-faced. Some of the other songs receive fewer laughs. Willy Nelson's appearance, a marijuana influenced take on “The Little Drummer Boy,” is pretty but essentially a one joke bit stretched out too long. Feist's song, which mixes “Angels We Have Heard on High” with a call center, is similarly melodic if underdone. Toby Keith's country number, a satirical riff on the so-called War on Christmas, is pretty good but hampered by Keith's clear discomfort being on-screen.

Luckily, any bumps in the road are forgiven by the end. All the performers come together for a rendition of Costello's “What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” which was always a stealth Christmas song. The special pauses for a moment of sincerity at the end, where Colbert and Costello sing a number about the power of secular holiday traditions, beyond the people and cultures they're connected with. That one is a regular presence on my December playlist. Weirdly, Comedy Central hasn't made a habit of airing “A Colbert Christmas” annually. I don't know why as, aside from a joke about the Jonas Brothers, it's aged pretty well. The politics in this country might have gotten even more grotesque but tomfoolery of this degree is as evergreen as Christmas trees. [8/10]


Christmas 2017: December 4


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus

My love of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” weirdly, has not come up too often on this blog. I guess I figure it goes without saying. I love old genre movies, low budget filmmaking, robots and puppets. “MST3k” is exactly in my wheelhouse and always has been. When it comes to MST3k holiday episodes, the go-to answer is usually “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” from season three. However, I reviewed that film in its raw, unriffed form back in December of 2015. Not wanting to repeat myself, I instead opted for the other Christmas-themed MST episodes. That would be “Santa Claus,” from season five, after Mike became the human host.

Unlike “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” which was home-brewed American weirdness, “Santa Claus” is imported holiday hokum. The film was originally made in Mexico, for Mexican audiences. So its take on the Santa mythos is culturally specific. This St. Nick lives on the moon, instead of the North Pole. His reindeer are robotic automatons. A wizard, named Merlin in the English dub, helps him build his toys, not elves. Reflecting Mexico's nature as a deeply Catholic country, the film's plot sees Santa Claus fighting a devil sent to Earth to corrupt innocent children. (This is in addition to several religious mentions sprinkled throughout the film.) The English dub, via the power of re-editing and overzealous narration, manages to make a weird Mexican kid's movie even weirder.

Taken on its own, “Santa Claus” is actually the perfect kind of film for “Mystery Science Theater.” It is, by no traditional metric, a good film. The special effects are cheesy, unconvincing, and frequently unnerving. The story is nonsensical. Many of the film's choices are bizarre and unintentionally hilarious. Such as an overly verbose narrator and an ineffective villain. There's lots of long dialogue-free segments, allowing plenty of room for riffing. And yet “Santa Claus” is a film I'd almost be willing to watch without Mike and the Bots. The film's sets and props are bizarre. The disembodied body parts and robotic reindeer are honestly creepy. This combines with the movie's sometimes harsh tone – a devil tempting kids to commit murder, a world where the poor considering theft to survive – to a create a likably weird kid's movie. It's also all on accident too, as nobody involved in “Santa Claus” knew they were making something weird or creepy. That homemade quality adds a lo-fi charm to a film with an excruciatingly slow pace and terrible acting.

As an episode of MST3k, “Santa Claus” is of high quality as well. The riffing is frequent and often hilarious. Notable jokes include Mike and the Bots interpreting Santa's odd looks as he plays music for a gang of singing children. The bots often improvise their own lyrics for the musical numbers too. The gang's reaction to the film's villains – who they characterize as flamboyant, put-upon by his own incompetence, or overly sadistic – are one of the episode's best gags. The way they draw attention to Lupita's often awful situation, contrasting with the film's cheery tone,  is one of the writers' more insightful jokes. One of the best running jokes in the film is how the hosts respond to the film's chatty narrator.

While rarely the high-light of any episode, the host segments for “Santa Claus” are pretty amusing too. Two of the segments feature music. The first involves Mike and the Bots forming a prog rock group named Santa Klaws, which perform a whisper-y, synth-filled Christmas ballad of their own. Later, the gang joins together to sing a non-denominational Christmas carol called “Merry Christmas... If That's Okay.” That jokes leans on good ol' fashion absurdity more than its War on Christmas premise suggests. There's some other good jokes here too, like the Bots attempting to contact Mike's family for the holidays but instead talking to some other Nelson family. (Who are unmoved by the sight of two robots on a space station talking to them.) The episode concludes with a funny gag of snow falling on the Satellite of Love.

This episode remains a fan favorite among MSTies. It has been highly rated among several polls, deciding the show's best episodes. The characters of Santa Claus and Pitch the Devil would appear in a few other host segments. RiffTrax, Michael J. Nelson's eventual successor to his version of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” has also covered the film several times. It all combines to make an ideal bit of oddball holiday cheer. The film itself is entertainingly weird on its own. The MST3k gang, meanwhile, provide jokes and wisecracks of a highly amusing nature. I highly recommend it! [7/10]




Justice League: Comfort and Joy

Despite my general love for “Batman: The Animated Series,” I have very little exposure to “Justice League,” its eventual spin-off. I have heard that the show's sole Christmas episode, “Comfort and Joy,” is well regarded. It's also fairly isolated, being the sole stand-alone episode in a season composed of two-parters, so it sounded like I could drop right in on this one. The episode concerns the League going their separate ways for the holidays. Superman visits his parents in Kansas and brings along Martian Manhunter, who has no familiarity with Earthly holiday customs. The Flash performs his yearly tradition of grabbing the season's hottest toy for an orphanage in Central City. Along the way, he encounters erudite villain Ultra-Humanite. Lastly, Green Lantern and Hawk Woman vacation on a wintry planet and, at her suggestion, end up in a bar brawl somewhere else.

“Comfort and Joy” resonated with me because of how it shows the different ways people celebrate the holidays. Clark Kent returns home, spending the day with holidays. The Flash focuses on charity, giving to the needy. This spirit of giving ends up infecting the Ultra-Humanite. While destroying a modern art museum, which he sees as an affront to classical aesthetics, the Flash talks Humanite into helping him give a gift to the kids. (Though he reprograms the toy – a rapping, farting robot duck – to play the Nutcracker Suite instead.) This subplot comes full-circle at the end, when Flash presents the villain with an aluminum Christmas tree in his prison cell. This ends up reminding the bad guy of his own childhood.

Some people don't celebrate at all. Hawk Woman, another alien, commemorates Christmas by picking fights in alien bars. This, however, ends up bringing her and Green Lantern – apparently they have romantic feelings for each other – closer. And that's what it's really all about, isn't it? While bunking with the Kents, Martian Manhunter gets familiar with Christmas traditions. Like gift-giving, caroling, or leaving cookies out for Santa. In the end, the alien finds himself touched by giving kindness and receiving kindness in turn. (There's also plenty of cute gags here, like the Kents wrapping Superman's gifts in lead foil, so he can't peek with his x-ray vision.)

“Comfort and Joy” is pretty low on typical superheroic action. The episode begins with the League saving an alien world from colliding with another planet. There's a brief bit of Flash's superspeed, while trading blows with the Ultra-Humanite in the museum. Most of the action coems from Green Lantern and Hawk Woman's barroom brawl. Otherwise, this is an episode focused on characters. And that's why it works. It ends up being a surprisingly touching half-hour. [8/10]


Monday, December 4, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 3


Rise of the Guardians (2012)

When I first heard the premise for “Rise of the Guardians,” I thought it was a pretty cool idea. This would essentially be “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” but with mythical childhood characters. However, I guess I misread the plot synopsis when I first came across it. For a long while, I thought the film's heroric team – led by the likes of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – would also feature the Boogeyman. That they were all working together to protect the world's collective child from some greater evil. That struck me as a potentially profound idea, that fear is just as important a childhood emotion as glee or joy. But then I saw the trailer and, ho hum, the Boogeyman was the bad guy. I saw the movie eventually and was underwhelmed by it. However, it has developed a minor following as a holiday movie.

In the world of “Rise of the Guardians,” all the figures of childhood belief are real. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman aren't just responsible for their specific holidays or events. They are Guardians, mystical beings pledged with protecting the world's children. Jack Frost doesn't like that style. The wintry imp has widely been forgotten by modern day youths and resents that fact. However, when a greater evil – Pitch the Boogeyman – returns to threaten the children, the Guardians are forced to recruit Jack Frost. The frosty sprite will find his convictions tested and will rediscover his own past on his way to becoming a hero.

Did I mention that “Rise of the Guardians” is a Dreamworks production? That studio has never really overcome its stigma as a second-class also-ran to Pixar. However, Dreamworks eventually found their niche producing acrobatic animated action films. This is what would elevate “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung-Fu Panda” above the studio's typically dreadful work. “Rise of the Guardians” falls into a similar category, being a kid-friendly adventure film. The script builds a superhero style story around the public domain characters. Some of the twist on the legends – Santa being a tattooed Russian, the Tooth Fairy as a hummingbird like creature – are interesting. So is the gang collectively taking its orders from the Man in the Moon, a mysterious stand-in for God itself. The action scenes are decent too, such as the gang's first fight with the Boogeyman, in the clouds. Or when Jack Frost chases a night-mare across a city's rooftops.

One reason Dreamworks' movies are rarely as well loved as Pixar's is the quality of animation. Pixar films from the late nineties still look pretty good. This movie is just a few years old and its animation has already aged horribly. First off, the character designs vary from totally generic to outright ugly. A couple of the kids the Guardians are protecting have squished, unappealing faces. Their pet greyhound looks dreadful. The Boogeyman's design is obviously derivative of Hades, from Disney's “Hercules.” The lack of detail in the animation is apparent at times, as the characters' movement can be quite stiff and unconvincing. “Rise of the Guardians” was also made during the 3D revival. So there's plenty of scenes of shit flying towards the camera.

Another bad habit of Dreamworks' animated features are star-studded casts, that favor name recognition over actual vocal talent. “Rise of the Guardians” has plenty of A-list talent in the film but the voices usually fit the character. Hugh Jackman as an action-fied Easter Bunny is an especially inspired choice. Jude Law clearly had some fun hamming it up as the Boogeyman. Isla Fisher is nicely warm as the frantic, sweet Tooth Fairy. Alec Baldwin does well as Santa but, due to the Russian accent, barely sounds like the star. That makes you wonder why Dreamworks bothered to get the big name actor. Chris Pine does fine as Jack Frost but Pine's tough guy voice seems at odds with the elf-ish character he's playing.

“Rise of the Guardians' is not technically a Christmas movie. It actually takes place around Easter, as the Bunny repeatedly reminds the other characters. However, the role of Santa Claus, his elves, and a late winter snow certainly qualifies it for December viewing. There's some amusing touches in the movie. Like Santa's workforce of yetis or a cameo from a dinosaur. The modern internet being what it is, the film would quickly develop a following. (Some fans even went as far as to pair Jack Frost and Elsa, from “Frozen.”) I, however, am not much of a fan of this one. It's a fairly generic kiddie flick. And, hey, how come Halloween and autumn were left out? Couldn't they have used Jack of the Lantern instead of Jack Frost? [6/10]




The Angry Video Game Nerd: An Angry Nerd Christmas Carol

While he's best known for riffing on shitty video games, James Rolfe's long-running “Angry Video Game Nerd” series has always been pretty creative within that framework. For his second Christmas special, the Nerd cracks jokes over a shitty game but also does something a little more. The first half of “An Angry Nerd Christmas Carol” is devoted the Nerd reviewing “Home Alone 2” for the Super Nintendo. The second half has the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future taking the Nerd back and forth through time. Naturally, some more reviews are thrown in, such as “Shaq-Fu” and some Wii shovelware.

The review segments of “An Angry Nerd Christmas Carol” are solid stuff, in the classic mold of the series. The “Home Alone 2” game is especially baffling. The unusual set of enemies include evil suitcases and vacuum cleaners. Some of the enemies also loose their clothes when you strike them. The Ghost of Christmas Present scene is where Rolfe inserts a review of “Shaq-Fu,” one of the most notoriously awful SNES games. His reaction to the bizarre story line and odd characters are amusing. I especially like the digression about other phrases you can add the suffix “-fu” too.

The Christmas carol riff is hardly inspired on its own. However, it's most amusing for the personal peaks it gives us at James Rolfe's life. The past segment features the content creator's real childhood home videos. We see him as a little kid, critiquing “Super Mario Bros. 2” and loosing his temper at a video game for the first time. It's pretty cute. The future segment is prophetic, in a sense. The Ghosts of Christmas Future, played by the Grim Reaper sprite from “Castlevania,” shows the Nerd as an old man, with a goofy beard and a grey shirt, riffing on shitty games that where then new. Considering its been ten years and James Rolfe is still playing this character, still reviewing shitty games, that prediction came true in a sense.

While not his most inspired seasonal offering, as I still think the Bible Games reviews are my favorite, this is still a solid Christmas episode for A.V.G.N. fans. It also makes it clear that, even from the show's early years, that Rolfe was interested in doing more stuff than just creatively swearing at old video games. Even though he does that a lot too. [7/10]


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 2


Lake Alice (2017)

On the days when my podcast co-host and I have absolutely nothing else to do, we often find ourselves watching movie trailers on Youtube. Usually, we end up going down the rabbit hole of trailers for upcoming horror movies. I'm not talking about the glossy studio releases or the buzzy upcoming indies. I'm talking about the shit. The super low budget horror flicks that pack their trailers full of cliches and jump scares. More often than not, we laugh or roll our eyes. Occasionally, however, we come across something promising. I had not heard of “Lake Alice” before. Yet I found the trailer to be effective. The promise of a snowy, Christmas-set slasher seemed right up my alley. So I decided the film would fit in with my December watch list.

Sarah is returning to her home town, in rural Wisconsin, for Christmas. She's brought along her boyfriend Ryan, who her parents have never met before. Soon, the four are vacationing at the family cabin near Lake Alice, which is blanketed with snow this time of year. While there, Ryan proposes to Sarah, which she enthusiastically accepts. This happy holiday is soon interrupted. In the middle of the night, a masked figure knocks on the door. Soon, the family is being stalked by a knife-wielding killer.

“Lake Alice,” the feature debut of director Ben Miliken and writer Stevie Jane Miller, is clearly a low budget film. It's one of those horror films that clearly couldn't afford big name actors or flashy make-up effects. So instead, the movie tries to compensate with some snowy atmosphere. And it almost works. “Lake Alice” is very much a slow burn. It spends the first forty minutes developing the characters and the town around them. So we spend a lot of time with the cast. The script goes out of its way to introduce three or four separate red herrings, most of which end up adding to the body count. Random stops by cops, visits to bakery, or trips to gas station become more ominous than they probably should be. An unseen figure watches and records the family's activities. The long build-up to the slashing makes you wonder if “Lake Alice” is actually attempting to create atmosphere or is just wasting time. I'm split on that myself, as the film is interchangeably tense and tedious.

“Lake Alice” runs all of 77 minutes long and the carnage doesn't begin until the half-way point. If you're expecting a gore-fest, you're going to be disappointed. There's a throat slicing, a head bashing, and a full body burning but none of these scenes are especially explicit. The film attempts a certain voyeuristic edge, with the killer recording most of his murders. There's occasionally a tense moment but, too often, the murderer sneaks up on the victim in an obvious way. There's one clever twist involving the slasher's identity but it's still pretty easy to guess. The killer certainly has a neat appearance. The combination of a dark parka and a white ski mask, with the blackened eyes emphasized, is a striking look.

The film's cast is a mixed bag. Brad Schmidt plays Ryan as an optimistic guy and strikes an occasionally charming moment. Caroline Tudor, as Sarah, is obviously a novice performer. Tudor's delivery is often pretty flat. Her screaming is not especially convincing either. Peter O'Brien, a character actor of some note that is probably the movie's biggest name, plays the dad, Greg. (Unless, perhaps, Eileen Dietz – otherwise known as the demon face from “The Exorcist” – counts as a big name.) He does a good job of making his obvious contempt for his daughter's new boyfriend clear without being a jerk. Probably the best performance in the film is Laura Niemi as the mom and she's out of the movie for most of its run time.

So “Lake Alice” tries. I can appreciate that. However, the film ends up being a little anemic. The short run time and minimalist plot combines to make a movie that doesn't offer much. The choice of favoring suspense over gore, or even over jump scares, is an admirable one. It doesn't quite work though, as the film's cast and characters don't quite live up to its ambitions. I suspect the director's next film will probably be better. The film does utilize its December setting well, with a gift-giving scene around the Christmas tree and plenty of stomping around in the snow. [5/10]




The Simpsons: Marge Be Not Proud

The very first episode of “The Simpsons” was Christmas themed. Oddly, the series has not returned to the holiday too often in the years since. However, it's second Christmas episode – from the seventh season, a season packed with classic episodes – may be the show's best December-related offering. “Marge Be Not Proud” begins with Bart lusting after “Bonestorm,” a “Mortal Kombat”-style, hyper-violent video game. He asks for it for Christmas but Marge refuses, saying the game is too expensive and too violent. Bart wants the game so badly that he decides to shoplift it. He's immediately caught but the security guard lets him go, as long as he doesn't return to the store. Naturally, the Simpsons goes to that same store the next day for a family photo. The revelation ends up effecting Bart and Marge's relationship in a serious way.

“Marge Be Not Proud” is packed full of fantastic gags. Lawrence Tierney has a hilarious guest spot as the store security guard, who becomes angry at a cheese-and-cracker set and baffles Bart with his odd words. This leads to an inspired weird gag, where Bart imagines the back of the car seat as the guard, who utilizes the built-in ash tray. Milhouse contributes some inspired moments, involving a ball-and-cup game or Bart trying to get close to his mom, desperate for mom-related affection. The boy's imagination leads to some great moments, such as an imaged dreary Christmas in prison or video game characters coming to life to egg on his theft. (Including, I must point out, Sonic the Hedgehog.)

This is a Bart centric episode, though Homer gets some great moments. Such as his insight into the “Police Academy” series, his reaction to Allan Sherman, or the particular way he sets up a baby gate. Lisa gets one or two funny moment as well, such as her metaphor about the bathroom rug, her comments about artificial snow, or her reaction to the final moment. There's some other free-roaming absurdity here, such as the reoccurring gag about a golf game or an insightful appearance from Troy McClure. And, of course, the “Bonestorm” commercial is a classic.

Ultimately, what makes “Marge Be Not Proud” a classic is its more poignant moments. In the beginning, Bart is uncomfortable with how his mom treats him like a little kid. Following his shoplifting episode, Marge begins to treat her son differently. She no longer sees him like a child. It's a feeling most kids and parents have to deal with eventually. The episode brings the subtle changes to a growing relationship to life in an effective way. The conclusion, which shows that familial love can overcome anything, is surprisingly touching. This mixture of hilarious absurdity and emotional character interaction is often when “The Simpsons” was at its best. That is clearly on display here. [8/10]


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 1


While my yearly Halloween horror marathon is something I plan for all year, a shorter December marathon devoted to holiday movies is always a much more rushed concept. So here's to twenty-five days of Christmas and winter-related movies. I have no idea if this is going to work but let's give it a shot anyway.


A Christmas Carol (1951)

If you've seen one version of “A Christmas Carol,” you've seen them all. Or so common wisdom would dictate. This is why movie studios put out a new version every ten years or so, in hopes that it'll imprint on whatever the current generation is, thus becoming a seasonal classic in certain households. Whichever version is considered the best is hard to say, since there's roughly ten thousand of them. I've said my piece on my faves. However, classic film buffs and cinema connoisseurs like to single out the 1951 version. Starring Alastair Sim, the movie is known as simply “Scrooge” in its native England but was released as “A Christmas Carol” in the States, just in case people didn't realize what story they were paying to see.

The plot of Dicken's novel is so well known, there's no reason to summarize it. Instead, time is better served pointing out the changes this version makes. 1951's “A Christmas Carol” spends more time on Scrooge's backstory than most versions. The Ghost of Christmas Past segment is the longest part of the movie. We see what becomes of Scrooge's younger sister and his former fiancee. How his business grew, and how his heart hardened, is shown in more detail. After Scrooge awakens from his nighttime voyage, we get an extend scene of him freaking out his maid with his jovial mood. We even see Scrooge getting dinner on his way home from the office on Christmas Eve.

This focus on backstory is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, it's sort of nice to get some more information on these famous supporting characters. Some of these elements are taken from overlooked episodes in Dickens' novel but many are exclusive to the movie. If you've ever wondered what became of Fan or Mr. Fezziwig, this is the movie to see. However, the backstory-heavy script also creates a somewhat slow pace. By giving the Ghost of Christmas Past so much screen time, the other two segments feel somewhat abbreviated. The middle act feels especially rushed through. This results in pacing that's a little unsteady and top-heavy.

One element that this particular version of “A Christmas Carol” is especially lauded for is Alastair Sim's performance. Sim's take on Scrooge is really interesting. From the earliest scene, Sim plays Scrooge as very angry. He's not merely a miser and really grouchy, he's extremely bitter. Sim's acting also makes it clear that this bitterness is rooted in loss and hurt. As Scrooge revisits the painful events of his youth, Sim's Scrooge becomes more and more pathetic. By the time the Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come shows up, this Scrooge already seems pretty scared and traumatized. After awakening a changed man, Sim plays Scrooge as frenzied and almost unstable. It's certainly a more emotional and humanized take on the character than we're perhaps used to seeing.

This “Christmas Carol” is also one of the more stylistically directed adaptations. Brian Desmond Hurst directs the story almost like a horror film at times. The appearance of Marley is really creepy, the ghost screaming and rattling his chains more than often. This leads to an atmospheric shot of dozens of ghosts lingering around the streets. Whenever the Ghosts of Christmas Present travels between time periods, the film dissolves over a sequence of a lantern shining through a tunnel of snow. The shadowy aspect of the direction increases as the film leads into its last act, the Dickensian London seeming especially dark and dreary. For a Christmas film, this is pretty spooky looking movie at times.

The film's supporting cast is pretty good too. Glyn Dearman's Tiny Tim clearly influenced future versions of the character. Ernest Thesiger, Dr. Pretorious himself, has a bit part as an undertaker. Since every version follows the same outline, the joys of any given version of “A Christmas Carol” comes from the smaller details. Thanks to a strong lead performance and atmospheric visual sense, this “Scrooge” does stand above quite a few other version. It's certainly an improvement over the somewhat stale 1938 adaptation I review last year. It won't become my go-to “Scrooge” but it's definitely pretty good. [7/10]




Hardrock, Coco and Joe (1951)

One of my favorite bits of anti-cheer Christmas entertainment is the “TV Funhouse” Christmas episode. A hilarious segment in that episode is “Tingles the Christmas Tension.” I just assumed that this was meant as a goof on any number of classic Christmas cartoons. Listening to the commentary revealed that it was specifically a riff on “Hardrock, Coco and Joe.” A three minute long stop-motion short, this cartoon first aired on Chicago public television in 1951 and has been a seasonal staple ever since. The black-and-white musical short follows Santa on his Christmas trip, focusing on his three helpers. The little dwarves are the titular characters, each one serving a different purpose. Hardrock steers the sleigh, Coco navigates, and Joe is there just because Santa's fond of him.

It's pretty easy to see why “Hardrock, Coco and Joe” has endured as a regional classic. Not because it's particularly good. The animation is crude. The characters move stiffly when they move at all. Several sequences are repeated. The character designs are broad and kind of creepy. There's really nothing to the short's story. The film simply focuses on the elves doing goofy stuff while Santa's going about his work.

However, the song that plays throughout is ridiculously catchy. The refrain of “Oh-lee o-lay-dee” is repeated several times, before the helpers announce their names. It's senseless but there's no denying that dumb song sticks in your head. That, more so than the fairly mediocre cartoon itself, is probably why Chicogians remember this so fondly. Having watched the original, I think I still prefer “Tingles” though. [6/10]

Friday, December 1, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2013)


9. Odd Thomas

Stephen Sommers' last few movies all made a lot of money. Either the weak reviews caught up with him or he wanted to try something smaller. His ninth feature was made for much less money and fell outside the blockbuster genre. Still, “Odd Thomas” had a decent pedigree. It was based off a novel by Dean Koontz, the first in a successful series. The cast lacked big stars but was still full of recognizable names. “Odd Thomas” probably could've been a decent hit. Instead, the film was plagued by financial woes, production shutting down several times. The release was repeatedly delayed. The film ended up only getting a wide theatrical release abroad. Naturally, it made very little money. So what went wrong?

As his name implies, Odd Thomas does not live a normal life. The young man has various psychic abilities. Primarily, he can see ghosts and evil spirits. He uses this power to solve the murders of the recently dead. This has made him friends with the local police detective. Recently, he has been seeing Bodachs – malevolent specters that feed on death and destruction – all around his home town. He quickly deduces an act of mass violence is about to happen. If Odd hopes to save the lives of innocent people, and his beloved girlfriend Stormy especially, he's going to have stop this before it happens.

Koontz' novel belonged solidly to a literary genre that has grown in popularity over the last decade. I'm talking about the occult detective story. Though the genre's roots go all the way back to ancient Rome, it's become especially prevalent more recently. I guess the combination of the detective story – always popular among airport readers – with fantastical or supernatural gimmicks are irresistible to a lot of people. “Odd Thomas” hits the occult detective hallmarks, following a detecting crime stopper who freely interacts with the supernatural.

“Odd Thomas” is not content to simply follow in the footsteps of Thomas Carnaki, Harry D'Amour, and John Constantine. The film mashes the concept up with a nearly as overexposed genre: The indie quirk-fest. Odd lives in an eccentric small town. He has a job at the local dinner, where he serves meals in response to goofy code phrases. His girlfriend has an equally twee job, at a trendy ice cream shop. The town of Pico Mundo is rift with colorful history. Such as an abandoned prison which would become a church and a family restaurant. Seemingly every character has a cutesy nickname or some sort of eccentric habit. Eventually, “Odd Thomas” lurches towards some truly dire comedy. Like a farting corpse. Combining a too-cute-for-words setting with a story full of death seems like an awful choice. But I guess it really isn't, considering the hugely popular cozy mystery genre is built on just that. It sits pretty poorly with me though.

“Odd Thomas” also sees Sommers returning to the horror genre. He focuses on chills-and-thrills more than usual, the most since “Deep Rising.” Wikipedia calls the movie a “supernatural mystery thriller” but its place in the horror genre seems obvious to me. There's ghosts, though they're mostly friendly. More pressing are the evil spirits, who often slither around the film in various creepy ways. The movie throws in more than its fair share of jump scares, often involving a monstrous face leaping into frame suddenly. One scene, maybe the most effective in the movie, has Odd barely escaping detection by the Bodachs while hiding in a slimy shack. While crossing off a lot of boxes, “Odd Thomas” is at least attempting to scare its audience occasionally.

The film ultimately lurches towards real life horror in a way it's simply unprepared to handle. The cutesy comedy and light-weight story builds to a convoluted climax. The identity of the killers shift several times, the movie piling on more twists. The exact details of the villainous scheme end up being unintentionally disturbing. The movie concludes with a mass shooting at a mall. Considering how many fucking acts of domestic terrorism we've endured recently, this can't help but come off as extremely tacky. It's also a level of drama a movie like this is hopelessly unable to handle. If that wasn't bad enough, the story ends on a downbeat note, with an unnecessary and borderline asinine twist.

During his tragically cut short career, Anton Yelchin appeared in quite a few low budget genre films. Some of these, like “Only Lovers Left Alive” or “Green Room,” were quite good. Others, like “Burying the Ex” or the “Fright Night” remake, were quite bad. “Odd Thomas” falls closer in quality to the latter category. This is no fault of Yelchin. He's a likable lead, with a charming aura and decent leading man abilities. Odd simply pushes too many budgets as a protagonists. He has magical powers, more of which emerge as the plot goes on. He has a tragic back story, thanks to an insane mother. He's highly skilled at melee combat. He's even an expert chef. It's all too much, any real personality or heart disappearing behind a pile of quirks.

All of the above apparently still wasn't enough to emphasize how special Odd is. He's also granted a perfect love story. He's known his girlfriend, Stormy, since they were kids. As adolescents, a fortune telling machine informed them that they were destined to be together. And so they are. Their love is uncomplicated and pure. It's... Not very compelling. Addison Timlin is funny and pretty, though saddled with some of the film's worst dialogue. I can't help but think that “Odd Thomas” would've worked better had Odd and Stormy come together throughout the story. Starting the film with their relationship already being settled drains drama. Making their love so completely, amazingly without flaws also makes it boring.

It still seems like Sommers is able to pull together a decent cast. “Odd Thomas” has some likable performers in its supporting roles. Willem Dafoe plays the police chief who works with Odd. Dafoe's role is more light-hearted than you're used to seeing from him. He likes to grill and his attempts to get intimate with his wife are repeatedly interrupted. I like how the character accepts Odd's abilities without question. Shuler Hensley, reappearing from “Van Helsing,” has a similarly physical part as a shambling weirdo nicknamed “Fungus Bob.” Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who has gone on to a promising character, plays probably one of the more relatable characters in the movie. There's also two decent cameos. Patton Oswalt appears in a one scene as a metal-worker, making the most of the bit part. Arnold Vosloo also has a really funny cameo, maybe the funniest moment in the film, as a one-armed ghost.

“Odd Thomas” is less action-packed than Sommers' usual films. Seemingly to compensate, he ramped his visual style way the fuck up. The film begins with a foot chase, Odd confronting the murderer of a young girl. Digital warping effects are applied, as the man runs away. Slow motion is utilized when the guy bursts through a fence. As the fist fight continues into a house, Sommers continues to uses slow-mo, smash cuts, and stylized editing. The habit continues to crop up throughout the film. Flashy editing effects show up time and again, attempting to spruce up simple flashbacks or new camera angle. In practice, this is just distracting.

One of Sommers' worst habits makes a comeback here and in a big way. In “Adventures of Huck Finn,” the director utilized voice-over narration far too much, often explaining stuff that was happening on-screen. “Odd Thomas” doubles down on this. There are several scenes, that otherwise would've been quiet, that are instead packed wall-to-wall with narration. Odd goes over every plot reveal and point, making sure the audience doesn't miss anything. (Weirdly, the plot still comes off as somewhat convoluted.) Eventually, it reaches the point where Anton Yelchin is photographed just standing around, waiting for his own narration to finish up. It starts out as extraneous and, by the end, becomes excruciating.

I'll give “Odd Thomas” this much. The special effects are pretty good. Considering he was working with far less money than usual, the CGI in this is actually pretty good. The Bodochs have a decent creature design. They are partially transparent, creature seemingly composed of dissolving fibers, flung together into a vaguely animal-like shape. They play a large part in the movie and generally look decent doing it. There's still some choppy CGI effects – this is a Stephen Sommers movie, after all – like when Odd is attempting to escape a swirling room. An explosion at the end looks pretty silly too. However, at least the film's budget is clearly right on the screen.

As I said, Dean Koontz' “Odd Thomas” was the first part in a series. The book series totals seven entries while a comic book spin-off would spawn three paperback volumes. The cinematic “Odd Thomas” ends by setting up a sequel, assuring us that Odd's adventures will continue. This was a bit hasty. Since the film was barely released, it barely made any money, only grossing a little over a million dollars. (The producers actually sued the distributors, saying they failed to properly promote the movie.) Even if “Odd Thomas” had made money, I wouldn't be eager to see a sequel. It's a tonally confused film, with tacky direction and construction. Ultimately, the story's hollow heart, based in a protagonist that is simply too special, is its undoing. [Grade: C-]



I don't know if it was the disastrous box office or the troubled production. Whatever the reason, Stephen Sommers hasn't made a movie since "Odd Thomas." His IMDb page still lists a remake of "When Worlds Collide" as an upcoming project. But that was announced years ago and little movement has been made on it since then. Considering he's still had more box office hits than failures, I imagine Sommers will find his way out of director jail eventually. While he's made some duds, when Sommers is on point, I really enjoy his movies. His brand of campy blockbuster entertainment can be joyous, when done right.