Friday, December 30, 2011

Hits & Misses from KFP's First Year

Since making lists is an internet tradition, here is KFP's first - My own listing of the movies I rated highest this year, and the real stinkers.  These are in no particular order so don't assume they're ranked - In fact, just see all of them if you get the chance.

The Best

1.  Come to the Stable - A forgotten, out of print film from 1949 that's one of the best Christmas movies you could ever want to see.  The plot description is, "Two nuns come to the US to build a children's hospital"...and yet it's not hokey, which is a minor miracle unto itself.

2.  Black Christmas - From the sublime to the insane, Bob Clark's 1974 holiday horror masterpiece about a madman killing sorority girls over Christmas break.  Slasher films don't get any better than this.

3.  Joulutarina - A Finnish film that tells the real story of Santa Claus... Thinks Lord of the Rings visuals meets Batman Begins character-building and you start to scratch the surface of this quirky tale of homeless young Nicholas and his curious tradition of gift giving.

4.  Midnight Clear - A low budget indie film about five residents of a small town facing despair and suicide on Christmas eve.  Its best accomplishment is in showing the characters finding hope through random encounters with each other, without descending into cheese.

5.  The Haunting - This 1963 original is the greatest haunted house film ever made, in my opinion.  Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

6.  The Woman in Black - A 1989 spooky British ghost story that's a fave among those of us who love our horror movies tilted toward the creepy.  Watch out for The Scene.

7.  Hausu - This 70's Japanese haunted house film is the closest you'll get to an LSD trip without the drug in question... Colorful, surreal, bizarre, original, and literally like nothing you've ever seen.  This is what you'd get if you put The Partridge Family and The Evil Dead into a blender.

8.  The Ellery Queen TV Series - This 70's mystery series has yet to be topped as a puzzle-solving experiment in interactive TV, in my opinion.  Watch along with Ellery and see if you can spot the clues and solve the case before he does.

9.  Triangle - This one slipped through the cracks for a lot of people, but it was one of the best surprises of the year.  What starts off as a generic slasher film on an ocean liner soon becomes a brain-bending Moebius strip narrative and a great mental exercise.

10.  The Gamers:  Dorkness Rising - Not a lot of comedies on my list, but this was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time... Providing, of course, that you have a solid background in fantasy role playing games, because otherwise you'll be one lost puppy.  Stick it out through the first 10-15 minutes and you'll LOL for the rest of the evening.

11.  Dial M for Murder - A 50's Hitchcock thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and then some, and all without anyone dodging gunfire in bullet time.

12.  The Eclipse - I think this was the only film I saw all year that I gave a 10/10 review, though I'll readily acknowledge that it's going to be too quiet and too contemplative for a lot of viewers.  It's a strange mix of genres - Art film, drama, romance, and ghost story.

13.  God Grew Tired of Us  - The only documentary in this list is the harrowing and inspiring story of African refugees coming to live in the US, and their experiences here.  It's an eye-opening look at our own culture and advantages from outside, as seen through the eyes of people who have never had a toilet or a mattress before.

The Wretched

1.  Holiday in Handcuffs/The Santa Trap/Christmas with a Capital C - All three of these were horrifyingly bad, but Christmas with a Capital C is the standout for its eye-popping display of preachiness and in-your-face angry religious people.  This is supposed to convert people to their cause?

2.  The Christmas Box - Hands down, the most venomous review I've written all year, and it deserves every word of it and more.  This movie is like that block of holiday fruitcake you find in the back of your cabinet... from 1999.  Don't even go near it, just pick it up with tongs and flush.

3.  Alone in the Dark - This poor, poor movie...  Beating on it is like beating on Twilight at this point, but it's still startlingly bad, and its one saving grace is the sheer joy of making fun of it.  In that sense, it's a positive triumph compared to the previous two.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Come to the Stable (1949)

NetFlix N/A
YouTube Link
IMDB 7.2/10
My Rating: 9/10
Sincerity Factor: 10/10
Treacle Factor: 4/10

Two nuns from a French convent travel to New England to found a children's hospital, but their lack of money, connections, and local resources propels them into encounters with church officials, landowners, and mobsters.

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.

Here's a tragedy - A movie that's been virtually forgotten, yet which should really be a bone-fide holiday classic on par with the Wonderful Life titles that everyone knows by heart.   Come to the Stable hasn't seen a commercial release since a VHS tape in the 80's, and it now seems lost in the public domain wasteland - That's why I posted the YouTube link above, where the movie can be seen in its entirety.  It's also floating around the usual torrent networks, if one prefers that route.  It can be found in DVD form at a few small online companies, but those are just transfers from the VHS version repackaged on DVD.  Hopefully someone will get smart and release a proper restored DVD edition of this!   But this film is the epitome of what I try to do with Kentucky Fried Popcorn, which is to bring unknown to light.

The story is very simple - Our heroines are Sister Margaret and Sister Scholastica, two nuns come to the US after World War 2 to fulfill a promise made during the war.  They ran a children's hospital in France, and prayed as the armies converged on their town that the generals would let them evacuate their charges.  They did, the kids all escaped, and now the good sisters are determined to do right for their faith by founding a new children's hospital in the states. 

Unfortunately, they face a few not-insignificant problems - They have no money, no support from the local arch diocese, no land to build on, and are complete strangers to US life and customs.  Unless you have a heart of stone, however, you can't help but grin and cheer for them as they barrel from one encounter to the next, borrowing what they need, following their instincts and charming a den of gangsters.  The land they want is owned by a city mob boss who they must "convince" to donate it, and they're also unknowingly up against the neighboring landowner Robert Masen (left), a music composer who has no desire to have a noisy hospital bordering his idyllic country home retreat.

A lot of the fun of this is in the humor - It's a much funnier story than you'd expect and the cheery nuns put an upbeat spin on everyone they meet.  The humor hasn't dated in the least, too...  It's largely in the form of witty banter and the occasional bit of slapstick, and the whole film feels as fresh as if it had been filmed yesterday. 

But expect to get a little misty, too.  Even the hardest of Grinchy hearts are likely to tear up at couple of places, especially the ending.  It isn't a movie that hits you over the head with its morality, but it's perfectly balanced enough to make one reflect on our own ideas of what we think we deserve versus the needs of others.  Robert Masen isn't a bad guy at all - He is nothing like the Scroogey anti-Christmas misers of so many other films, he's just a fellow who wants a little peace in a quiet little home he worked hard for.  It makes the conflict of the film much more ambiguous and indeed, more relatable.

One factor I've had to deal with head-on during this holiday movie marathon was the issue of religion in Christmas films - Where it belongs, where it doesn't, and the many ways in which it can be presented well and presented terribly.  I am not a churchgoer, myself, and am prone to take issue with movies that wag their fingers at me or try to hit me over the head with their spiritual message.  For me, the reason Come to the Stable works is because it has equal meaning for believers and non-believers alike - The religious can look at it and see the hand of god moving events and touching hearts, and the non-religious can view it as a parable of human goodness, of ordinary people doing remarkable things and showing generosity beyond expectations.  Like the best films, it's open to interpretation and even though the church is the center of the story, there aren't any fluttering angels or divine interventions.  Ultimately, it boils down to the central question we all face - Do we jealously guard our own comfort, or sacrifice for those in need?

And on that note, this wraps up the Kentucky Fried Popcorn holiday movie blowout for this year!  I hope everyone has enjoyed this wacko change of pace from my usual cinematic selections - I certainly have, and I look forward to doing this again next year... Especially because of all the films I didn't have time to write up this time out, such as Rare Exports, One Magic Christmas, and that oddly spooky modern movie, The Polar Express.  Until then, Happy Holidays to all, and to all a marvelous New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Faceful of Christmas Shrapnel

Since time for Christmas reviews is rapidly running out and I want to give full reviews only to my favorites, here are some mini reviews of the onslaught of holiday films we've been watching lately.  Buckle up and hang on tight as we powerdive through a flock of yuletide cheer!

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.

This Christmas

NetFlix 3.6/5
IMDB 5.5/10
My Rating: 6.5/10
Sincerity Factor: 7/10
Treacle Factor: 5/10

This was probably our best unexpected surprise of this year's holiday movies.  On casual glance, it looked like another hideously dumb Queen Latifah "Bringing down the house"-style comedy, but it's actually a lot more serious than you'd expect, and a lot better.  A large family gathers under one roof for the first time in years, and everyone has issues.  There's a domineering, philandering husband, a black sheep musician, the cheerful young guy with a secret, the matron with an unaccepted new lover, the...  Well, hell, I could write a paragraph just listing their individual issues, but it's really a film about family and the ties that bind families together, even when they drive each other insane.  As you'd expect in any Christmas film, things tie up semi-neatly to a sugarcake ending, but it's a lot more believable and rocky along the way than your typical holiday fluff.  Besides, how many other seasonal movies give you a full-blown rolling-in-the-yard catfight?  Funny, suspenseful, dramatic, inspiring, and even a bit sniffle-inducing.  A Must See.

Mrs Miracle
NetFlix 4.1/5
IMDB 6.2/10
My Rating: 2/10
Sincerity Factor: 4/10
Treacle Factor: 10/10

From the sublime to the mind-melting...  I'm amazed that this has higher IMDB and Netflix ratings than This Christmas, because I thought there was really no reason for this movie to exist. This Christmas gives you a lot of plotlines that go to unexpected places and show us believable characters.  Mrs Miracle is the sort of holiday movie that an automated holiday movie machine would stamp out on an assembly line for a 500-per-week quota.  A couple of young & beautiful people are somehow lonely at Christmas (Despite the fact that both of them are attractive enough to have their own personal harems), and the guy is incapable of disciplining his children because they have no mother there to apply her magical mother guilt powers.  In walks Mrs. Merkle, the standard crotchety old bat/angel who whips the house into shape, brings the kids in line, and sets up these two wayward 20-somethings as a socially-certified breeding couple.  Mission accomplished, Mrs. Merkle touches the kids with her glowing finger, says, "Beeeee goood", and goes back into space.  5 minutes into this, you'll wonder if the whole movie is going to be so predictable.  Yes.  Go do something else with your time, because you're not getting any surprises here.  The best thing about this film is the ease with which it could be converted into one of those fake YouTube horror trailers.  Picture this edit:
Aged, vaguely caustic old lady eyes two identical children.
"What a mess this room is!", she says.
In the next room, cut to the young father on the phone - "What do you mean, the employment agency has no record of her?  But Mrs. Merkle told me your office sent her!"
Cut to a close-up of old lady's eyes narrowing.
Cue scene of children's bedroom, tidy and neat, but empty of children.
Fade to scene of old lady walking off down dark street to eerie piano music which gets creepier as she fades magically from view.

NetFlix 3.9/5
IMDB 5.8/10
My Rating: 4/10
Sincerity Factor: 5/10
Treacle Factor: 8/10

It's time for young Nick Snowden to take over the reins as the new Santa Claus.  Unfortunately, one of his reindeer falls into a plot device and ends up at a zoo run by inexpressibly perky Sandy, who has a secret closet full of Bobby socks and poodle skirts.  Madcap antics and television-quality CGI ensue as Nick tries to rescue his reindeer with the help of jive-talkin' young Hector, the most annoying "sassy black kid" in a film since that child that played Jude in Swamp Thing. Fortunately Sandy's perkiness and ability to fill out a tight sweater prove distracting, and the whole thing is painless enough as bubblegum fare goes.  "At least it's not as dull as Mrs. Miracle" is not exactly groundshaking praise, but it's the best I got. It has a few moments where you'll go, "Awww, that's almost sincere", and conservative viewers should be pleased when this bright young professional woman makes the life choice to abandon her career and become a stay-at-home mom at the North Pole.

A Christmas Romance

NetFlix NA
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 5/10
Sincerity Factor: 6/10
Treacle Factor: 9/10

It's Olivia Newton-John!  Everything bad about this movie is forgiven.  It's not great, but males of my generation will be hopelessly devoted to Olivia because she's the one that we want.  Olivia plays a struggling single mom trying to keep her mountain farm and give her kids some semblance of Christmas, which in her case means going into her attic to find old toys to wrap, and hope the kids will appreciate this gesture because it's all she can afford.  When a banker shows up on Christmas Eve to deliver her foreclosure notice, all seems lost until he wrecks his car in the snowstorm and Olivia takes him in to spend his Christmas among wholesome country folk.  This movie is charmingly innocent and very much of its time, because after the behavior of our banks today, most people would let that fucker freeze to death.  "I can't keep up the payments right now, so tough luck for me?  Well, I guess you're going to spend Christmas Eve freezing to death in your car, tough luck for you."  Adding to the insult, our banker is a royal SOB who bitches and complains once rescued and we spent the middle part of the movie urging Olivia to introduce him to the secret pit in her barn basement.  A couple months of, "It puts the lotion on its skin" should set that guy's values in order.  Alas, instead we get the most uncomfortable and forced romantic attraction ever...  When these two finally hook up, you'll be WTFing all the way to the foreclosure office because they're so hopelessly mismatched and the guy is such a bag of liver.  But Olivia makes everything OK when she sings, and later there are a few genuinely heartwarming moments involving rescue by horses.  There are worse ways to spend your holidays than Christmas with Olivia.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Black Christmas (1974)

NetFlix 3.2/5
IMDB 7.2/10
My Rating: 9/10

During Christmas break, a sorority house is terrorized by an obscene phone caller who begins secretly murdering the resident girls.

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.

One of my all-time favorite horror movies.  This little seasonal gem is directed by Bob Clark, better known for 1983's A Christmas Story, that inescapable haunter of holiday television repeats.  Black Christmas's place in horror history is secured as the (arguable) first official "slasher" film - There were plenty of giallos before this, but they tended to feature motivated and more or less sane killers, whereas with Black Christmas, the slasher formula fell perfectly into place.  Insane killer, many screaming female victims, Final Girl.  I'm not really a big fan of slashers - I find most of them a bit boring, and don't look at the endless Friday 13th/Freddy sequels of the 80's with the same sort of nostalgia that a lot of folks have for those franchises.  Black Christmas, however, grabbed me (Though only on the second viewing, interestingly - This is a movie that gets better with repeat watching).  One of the fascinating things about it is to see it through the lens of Halloween, which typically gets the bigger accolades and public recognition.  A great deal of Halloween is taken almost directly from Black Christmas, from the opening sequence through the killer's eyes, to the bedroom body pile that ignites the climax, to the long, slow camera pans through the empty house that close the movie.  I previously called Halloween my favorite slasher film - Now Black Christmas ties it, and may well top it. 

The plot is as basic as you can get.  Over the Christmas holiday, a sorority house gradually empties out as most of the girls go home for Christmas.  The few who remain are frightened by a series of vulgar phone calls and one by one they begin to disappear as an unseen killer stalks them inside the supposed safety of the group home.  Our heroine, Olivia Hussey, struggles both with this escalating sense of dread and also with a borderline-abusive boyfriend enraged by her decision to have an abortion.  Inept police help only complicates matters, and ultimately Olivia is left alone to face this extremely twisted madman.

The movie is filled to the brim with entertaining characters - No stock victims here.  Every person in this has their own unique voice, though some speak louder than others.  Particularly entertaining is the den mother, Mrs. Mac:

Marian Waldman dives into this role with relish, giving us a sly, cantankerous, alcoholic old den mother whose life spent looking after girls who would, "hump the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get up there!" has left her endearingly cranky and brilliantly clever in hiding her bottles of whiskey.  Alternating between protective and scathing, she's a trip and she provides a lot of the film's humor, of which it has a surprising amount.  John Saxon shines as the one cop smart enough to realize there's real trouble, while Doug McGrath's Sergeant Nash is comedy gold as he grapples ineffectually with these modern college girls.  Olivia Hussey, our Final Girl, was beautiful and ethereal, but my own favorite character was definitely the loudmouthed Barb, played by a pre-Superman Margot Kidder.

Barb is the sort of brash, pushy, brassy girl that manages to offend everybody, yet she's also brave and surprisingly sympathetic (Subtly overheard phone calls and remarks suggest a very troubled home life).  It helps that she's drop-dead sexy in this, too.  In fact, she's the sort that would be one of the first victims in any other slasher film, but this is just one of the ways that Black Christmas breaks the not-yet-written slasher film rulebook.  Overshadowing all these people is the movie's looming central character, however, and it isn't the killer, it's the house itself.

The girls' sorority house is an echoing labyrinth of a building, dressed up in holiday cheer and yet dark and secretive... A sort of mini Hill House where doors are sensibly shut.  It wraps around the entire story and provides the backdrop for events, and somehow manages to be both a festive place for friends and warmth and also a place of private rooms and secret spaces.  The girls are together for Christmas, and we cozy up with them, and yet the killer is also in there somewhere and all the decorations don't make the place any less dangerous.  The killer himself is a cipher - There are clues scattered throughout the film that a dedicated viewer can piece together to understand him better (Pay attention to the characters in the phone calls, especially the parents, Billy, and Agnes), but ultimately he is death personified.  This isn't a Jason-like villain with a personality and modus operandi.  Billy the killer is simply a presence, a sort of incandescent rage bottled up in one body, that pops out and strikes like some deranged Jack-in-the-box.

Scary movies are made and broken by their scary moments, and this film has one of the best in the horror genre:
(Warning - Minor spoiler ahead)  Barb's phone conversation with Billy is the movie's best scene, in my opinion - It's Black Christmas's "Who was holding my hand?" (from The Haunting).  The killer has been phoning the girls repeatedly.  Each call is a barrage of cacophony - Insults, profanity, lewd sexual propositions, animal noises, baby sounds, barking, and more - and the sheer inhuman-ness of the caller is disturbing enough to start with... The idea that it's just one person making this range of sounds.  When the catty Barb gets involved, the exchange escalates as Barb returns tit for tat ("Could that really be just one person? ""No Claire, it's the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call.").  When Barb finally goes too far, all pretense drops and the killer replies calmly, "I'm going to kill you" in a manner so offhand as one might say, "I'm going to get the mail."  It's a supremely creepy moment and one of the best that horror cinema has to offer.

Black Christmas is light on gore - The kills are more artistic and reminiscent of a Dario Argento movie than something that would make for a bloody Fangoria cover.  Its specialty is creepy discomfort, not gross-out splatter.  Part of this is due to the unseen killer, a feature that sets Black Christmas apart from nearly all other slasher films.  I've often wondered if Bob Clark has kicked himself over the years for lost income from toys and marketing, but this is one of my favorite aspects of the movie, the fact that we simply do not see the killer.  We see a hand here, an eye there, a silhouette in the background, but at no time do we get the "big reveal"...  Unlike Freddy and Myers and Jason, Billy is not a marketing commodity.  He's psychotic, not prepackaged, and he has none of the "Killer as superhero" trappings that would come to dominate slasher films in later years.  You might say that it isn't Billy who is the star, it's his work:

The lack of a marketable killer is just one of the ways that Black Christmas sets itself apart from the slasher wave that would follow  - Aside from the lack of grue, it also breaks the "rules" in many ways.  The smart & virginal girl doesn't become Final Girl... Instead, she's the first victim (Making Black Christmas more like real life, perhaps?).  Our heroine Jess (Olivia Hussey) is pregnant and planning an abortion, regardless of the protests of her slightly-crazy boyfriend.  This is a theme that would never fly in the Puritan-esque world of American slasher films, where girls are punished for being sexual and saved by being virtuous.  Jess is no-nonsense - She knows what she wants from life and intends to pursue it, damn the setbacks.  I've heard this described as a feminist film and it works well that way.  The ladies are all well-developed and independent of males, and they're far more believable than the usual bevy of bust-flashers.  Best is that not one character in this screams "Cannon Fodder"... You'll like them all and it makes it that much more harrowing when Billy strikes.

My favorite movies are ones I can rewatch.  The mark of a quality film, to me, is one that I like better the second or third time than I did the first, and that's certainly true here.  The first time I saw this, my reaction was largely, "Meh"...  I thought it was OK, but nothing all that great.  Circumstances convened to have me see it a second time, and I was blown away by how good it was, and it's only gotten better with each repeat viewing.  I was really lucky this holiday season to be able to see it in high def at the Sinister Cinema film screening, hosted by Budd Wilkins of Slant Magazine.  He and his wife Tina gave a great presentation and made the whole event a perfect little seasonal treat.

If by some chance you've never seen this obscure horror classic, curl up by the fire and watch it on Christmas Eve.  Twice.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cuento de Navidad/Xmas Tale

NetFlix 2.9/5
IMDB 6.3/10
My Rating:  6.5/10  
Sincerity Factor: NA
Treacle Factor: 0/10

 A group of children discover a woman in a Santa suit trapped in a sinkhole in the woods.  When they learn she is a wanted criminal who stole a small fortune, they torture and starve her for several days to force her to hand the cash over to them.  Unfortunately for them, one day they return and the hole is empty...

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.
Xmas Tale is part of a Spanish film series called Films to keep you Awake, and it's an excellent addition to an already excellent series (As someone else pointed out, this series is what Masters of Horror should have been).  Each movie is short (Xmas Tale clocks in at 71 minutes) and very tight - No wasted plotlines or padded running time here.  Xmas Tale is also a great addition to the small stable of holiday horror films that are genuinely worth seeing.

These Spanish films bring a decidedly non-Hollywood sensibility to their subjects and that's part of why this works.  These days, no US film would treat children so severely, or showcase their less desirable traits so clearly...  Over here, children are precious little coddled angels and can never be killed or injured in movies anymore.  Xmas Tale, by contrast, gives us one of the most honest representations of childhood on film - These kids are monsters, pure and simple.  But they're charming monsters...  Cheerful, clever, funny, adventurous, daring, and likable, just like real children, even when they're exhibiting the sort of Lord of the Flies mentality that defines so much of the school playground years.

The movie is set in the mid 80's in a seaside town in Spain.  The kids are very much 80's kids, right down to the one with a Karate Kid fixation, and it feels very naturally of its era.  I mention this because we just watched Super 8 the other night, and while it was a lot of fun and gave me vivid flashbacks to my 70's childhood, I thought that in many ways it overdid its "cultural time bubble" presentation.  There was simply so much 70's stuff crammed into every scene that the whole movie felt like it was literally shouting, "Look at all this authentic period detail!  Just look!"  I had Aurora monster model kits too, but my bedroom was not wallpapered with posters of Halloween, Bruce Lee, Steve Austin, and Jonathan Livingston SeagullXmas Tale gets it right - There's enough period detail to provide setting, but not enough to distract you from the story.  And what a story it is...

The story kicks off when our young scamps are playing in the woods and find a sinkhole with a woman at the bottom.  She's dressed up as Santa and when our cast run for help, they learn she's a very dangerous criminal who recently stole a huge sum of cash and vanished.  Realizing they've found the pot of gold at the end of the North Pole, they quickly concoct a plan to keep her in the pit and starve and torture her until she coughs up the location of the money.  They're nasty little tykes, too, pouring drinks on her, dropping rocks, and chewing Twizzlers while she wastes away with hunger.  As an audience, we're confused...  Any other movie with children would clearly present the kids as the heroes, but here they are the villains, at least most of them.  Dissension gradually builds in the ranks as reality takes hold over their shortsighted plan.  What, exactly, are they going to do with her if she does give up the cash?  If they get her out, she's a dangerous murderer who can recognize them all.  If they get police involved, they have quite a story to tell.  And if they just bury her in the hole, they're all complicit murderers.

This is the first half of the film and it's a perfect setup for events that follow.  It's a bit teeth-grinding, though - I would not call it "torture porn", as so many recent genre pics have been, but it's painful to watch in a few places and the physical and mental deterioration of the woman in the pit is believable and grueling.  I doubt I am spoiling anything by saying that, inevitably, there comes a day when the kids return to the pit and find it empty.  And that's when the movie switches gears and goes from psychological tension to old-school slasher, as Mrs. Claus goes after these cruel little snots with a vengeance.  The kids respond with first fear, then panic, and then the sort of Three Investigators cleverness that makes YA fiction such a joy when you're growing up.  Plans are concocted, traps are rigged, and the movie turns into a real life Scooby Doo story as our young scamps pit their devious kid brains against the bedraggled madwoman with a chopper.  It's Home Alone with blood, mayhem, and headshots.

It's loads of fun.  The story is tight and it never outstays its welcome, and the end of the film will leave you cackling with mad monster mirth.  It's a Christmas horror film that's better than most of its peers, and the sort of thing that every KFP reader ought to see at least once.  I limited my rating to a 6.5 for a few faults - For one, there really are no heroes here, no one you want to jump in and relate to.  Among the children, the girl is the kindest, but your loyalties are still conflicted right to the end...  Even while you're marveling at the way these Goonies pull together to fight back against their horrifying pursuer, you're not exactly on their side because they deserve everything they get and then some.  Mostly, though, I limited my rating because I found it to be a one-shot movie.  I've seen it twice now and while I enjoyed it, it isn't the sort of thing that's particularly enjoyable to re-watch.  The first time I saw Black Christmas, I was, "Meh".  The second time, it got better, and the third, and so on.  Xmas Tale, by contrast, drains its gas tank in one viewing and when you watch it again later, you know all the twists and it's less fun.  It's a bit The Sixth Sense in that respect - Really cool the first time round, but not the sort of film you'll want to watch over and over.  But it's still something every horror fan should watch at least once during the holiday season.

You better watch out...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

KFP Logo

The ultimate in low tech...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Joulutarina - A Christmas Story

NetFlix 3.8/5
IMDB 6.8/10
My Rating: 9/10
Sincerity Factor: 10/10
Treacle Factor: 4/10

Nikolas is orphaned as a boy when his parents and sister fall through the ice.  Fellow villagers are all too poor to afford to adopt him, so they agree to share the responsibility, and each family takes him for a year, switching off each Christmas.  Grateful Nikolas repays his adopted brothers and sisters by leaving hand-carved wooden toys for them secretly, until he falls into the dubious care of master woodworker Iisakki.    

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.

A lot of folks say, "They don't make them like that anymore", referring to the holiday films of their youth, and I'll agree that many older films seemed to have a more natural feel for balancing the secular and spiritual issues of their stories (Today, more and more holiday movies seem to be falling squarely on one side or the other of the cultural divide - Either completely secular romantic comedies that happen to occur at Christmas, or 100% overbearing religious films).  However, if you're missing the warm glow of something like Miracle on 34th Street, I heartily recommend this 2007 largely-unknown Finnish film called Joulutarina in its home country and, unimaginatively, Christmas Story here...  Dooming it to a lifetime of movie search confusion with the Red Ryder BB gun movie from 1983.

Fellow pipe smokers like myself are going to want a long clay churchwarden for this film - It's just that sort of movie.  Classical, one might say.  Certainly one of the more heartfelt holiday movies of the last 20 years, and all without ladling on the syrup and sugary sweetness.  Yes, there are children in the film, but no angelic cherubs with Christmas cookies for the villain...  It's a much more realistic film than that, if one can use the term "realistic" in a movie about the life story of Santa Claus. 

The story kicks off in a poor fishing village.  Nikolas' young sister Aada is ill and his parents need to take her to the doctor, so they leave Nikolas alone and venture into a blizzard at night, where they all die from falling through the ice.  Young Nikolas vows vengeance on snow everywhere, and devotes his life to becoming Batma..  No, sorry.  Nikolas builds a life foundation of empathy and giving on this childhood tragedy.  As he is passed from family to family like a parcel, he engages with his temporary brothers and sisters, and begins secretly leaving gifts for them in thanks for their taking him in, however briefly.  This carries on until no one can take him, and he is forced to live with the cruel woodcarver Iisakki, a sullen and angry man who treats him with disdain while using him as a workshop slave.  The rest of the movie spans the deepening relationship between Nikolas and Iisakki as Nikolas grows up and carries on his tradition of gift-giving all through his life.  If Christopher Nolan had made this, it would be called "Santa Claus Begins".

Before I lay on the gratuitous praise, I have to give one big rant about the film's presentation in the US - Both the US DVD and the Netflix streaming version are English-dubbed only, rather than Finnish language + subtitles.  I hate dubbed movies with a burning passion, even while acknowledging that the dubbing job in this is actually pretty good, as dubbing goes.  I don't mind the option of a dub, but for god's sake, give us an original language option too.  It's a mystifying omission and US viewers will have to get past the distraction of poorly synched lip movements in order to appreciate the film.  Worse, the Netflix streaming version is pan-and-scan, not letterbox, so Netflix viewers will miss a lot of the cinematic wonder of the scenery in this thing:

 I have the DVD and the visual quality is good, but I resented having to pay for a dubbed-only disc.  Still, the DVD quality is a markedly better experience than Netflix's cropped streaming version, so buyer beware - Watch it first for free on Netflix streaming, but know that your experience will be much improved by seeing the DVD.  My other caveat is more a caution - Do NOT watch the US trailer for the film!  No matter how much you might want to, or how curious you may be.  It completely spoilers the end of the movie and ruins the outcome of the climactic mystery. If you must see a trailer, watch this one instead - It's the subtitled Finnish language trailer that does a better job of telling the story without blowing the ending:

That said, I'll get on to all that is right with the film.  It's gorgeous.  Despite being made on a limited budget, it uses the best of the local scenery to create an environment that is Lord of the Rings-beautiful:

It's really refreshing to see a film that is enjoyable for all ages without being lunch-hurlingly insipid or crammed to the gills with Starbucks product placements and other such pop culture in-jokes.  50 years from now, no one will understand half the references in Shrek sequels, but this will be as good and watchable as ever.  It might be a bit too dark for the tots, though, and some of the themes may pass them by - It's a slow moving film and it takes its time to develop.  We watch Nikolas grow up and we're halfway through the story before he even starts to resemble the Santa image we all recognize.  And folks who like their holiday movies whitewashed may not take to this tale of an emotionally-damaged Santa Claus who pours his life's energy into bringing cheer to children to fill the void of the childhood he never had.  There's a distinctly sad and wistful air that runs throughout the film, bolstered by the real world grounding - No flying reindeer, no magic, no down-the-chimney...  While we're shown the events that go into building the finished picture of Santa, he's a believable Santa, an old man who laboriously loads up a sleigh and rides through the freezing cold to deliver wrapped wooden toys to the doorsteps of nearby villages.  He's all too real, and all too mortal, so prepare the kiddies for the sight of an aged Santa faltering on a shaking cane.  The ending probably won't leave a dry eye in the house, even among the cynics.

Enough said.  See it.  One of the best Christmas movies ever made.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Snowglobe (A KFP Guest Review)

NetFlix 3.9/5
IMDB 5.9/10
My Rating: 5.5/10
Sincerity Factor: 5/10
Treacle Factor: 5/10

Angela finds a mystical snow globe that transports her into an idyllic Christmas winter wonderland. But, when her two worlds unexpectedly collide, Angela has to make a choice about what really defines her perfect Christmas.

(To help keep KFP updates on schedule, I've roped in another guest reviewer, my very own wife!  I think you'll find she gives a much more literate review than I do, not to mention being a hell of a lot nicer to things like this than I would be.  But then, this was a chick movie through and through, so let me present the wife's review...)

Review by Emily.

My ratings above pretty much sum up how I felt about this movie: it was fun, fluffy, and a perfect example of a middle-of-the-road, mostly predictable Christmas movie that will offend no one.  It might make one want to bang some of the characters' heads together....but I'll get to that in a moment.

Snowglobe wastes no time establishing that our lead character, Angela (played by Christina Milian), is unhappy with her life and where it's (not) going. We quickly find out that she works at her family's deli and lives in an apartment building managed by her family.  Noticed a theme yet?  Keep reading.

Before we're out of the credits we've seen the titular package arrive and met the latest likely young man that her family hopes to marry her off to – because, as the building managers, her parents can choose the top picks of the eligible prospective tenants.  So, as Angela complains to her co-worker, “they stock our apartment building like a single-guy fish pond,” and then wait for her to fall in.  She's wise to their ploy, but it's one more sticky spot in the tar baby of family involvement.

Her family, interestingly, is African-American on her father's side and Italian on her mother's, and overwhelming on all fronts.  In reading other reviews to get a sense of what people thought of this movie I ran across one that praised it for its accurate portrayal of  how families really behave, and my knee-jerk reaction was along the lines of “Oh, you poor dear....”  Within the first fifteen minutes of the film the viewer has a firm understanding of why Angela might find her situation both frustrating and intractable: her family has no boundaries and observes none, mows over objections like a combine harvester, and above all, knows what's best for everyone (particularly Angela) and says so.  Loudly.

So when her mother (played with cheerful vigor by Lorraine Bracco) says “Look at your sister – married, pregnant – you should be so lucky!” and sister Gina (Luciana Carro) looks intolerably smug, we aren't surprised that Angela snaps and orders them all out of her apartment forthwith.  We really expected her to do it earlier, perhaps with a sharp stick. 

Surrounded by people who think things are just fine the way they are, Angela is fighting an uphill battle to break out and do something different, represented in this case by her desire to have a traditional Christmas goose instead of green lasagna for the holiday feast.  A cliché?  Well, yes, but also a situation that most of us can relate to.

Once the stampeding horde is out of her apartment, our heroine unpacks the box she received earlier and finds the snow globe within, sans note or card to identify the sender.  Mystified but delighted, she places the globe on her bedside table, winds the key, and drifts off to sleep to the music it plays.....and wakes up in a snow-covered Christmas tree lot!  No, wait, there's a row of shops, a pond with skaters, a stone bridge, and a one-horse open sleigh!  And snow.  Lots and lots of snow.  Angela has stumbled into her perfect Christmas, and if it seems a little too much like the village from The Prisoner to some of us, take comfort in the fact that she's far too young to have seen that show and consequently won't be worried. 

Everyone around her is happily pursuing their winter- or Christmas-related tasks, but she doesn't have much chance to explore before receiving a knockdown from a shovelful of snow and meeting Douglas, the industrious shoveler.  He is happy to welcome her to the village and introduce her around, and if he seems a trifle....well, simple, it's only a dream, after all.  He is very cute and friendly – in fact, everyone is very friendly, though alert viewers will sense the hive mind in the chorus of “Merry Christmas!” that seems to smooth all awkwardness away.  Christmas dinner is roast goose, the presents are ready, and Angela wants to stay forever, but of course she wakes up.

Her first conclusion is that she's had a wonderful dream.  The following night, however, she finds herself back in the village – to her happy surprise – and she speedily discovers that she can return there whenever she wants just by winding up the music box and drifting off with the snow globe's tune.  And  since her real-world existence is so deeply unsatisfying, she begins to escape into the Christmas world more and more.  Her relationship with Douglas grows and she passes happy hours learning to ice skate and teaching the residents of the inn attractive package-wrapping techniques.  Meanwhile, her relationship with the real world suffers: she's late to work, she's distracted, she fails to show up for family dinner (!), and finally caps it off by forgetting about her sister's baby shower.  Her family stages an Italian-style intervention and sets up dinner in Angela's apartment, without telling her that they've invited Eddie, the eligible bachelor from the first paragraph (remember him?).  Angela is incapable of being rude to him and surprises herself by having a really enjoyable evening with this real person.  We can see the idea beginning to grow that maybe romance is possible outside of the snow globe.

It was at this point that the movie departed from the script – not its own script, clearly, but the script that I had created about how it would come out.  I'm not going to give away the twist (if you really want to know it you can easily find out by checking other reviews) but that was what made this movie stand out a bit from the “background noise” of other extremely predictable holiday fare.  Unfortunately both of us found Christina Milian's acting style somewhat wearing; I began to see Angela as more of a collection of head twitches and hair flips than an actual character after about an hour or so.  We still have another Christmas movie to watch that she stars in, so we'll see if she can play anything other than twenty-something attitude.

The message of “Snowglobe” was clear from the start: appreciate what you have, don't worry so much about not having perfection.  It's a message that most Christmas movies want to convey in one way or another; the best of them manage it without our noticing that we've been indoctrinated (for an excellent example, see the earlier review of “Midnight Clear”).  I was skeptical about “Snowglobe” at first because I thought I could see exactly where we were headed and how we'd get there.  I was wrong, at least about how we got there, and I appreciate a story that surprises me.  So overall I would recommend this as an enjoyable movie for most family members, although if you have a low tolerance for bickering I would suggest a nice, tough piece of leather to bite into before setting off.  After all, as Angela points out, “How can you have Christmas without any shouting?”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Some Mini-Reviews

True to my goal, we've been watching loads of holiday films lately.  While there have been standouts like the last few I've given full reviews, most of them have been absolute shite - Too bland to elicit a reaction, too crap to ever be allowed to air in any other season.  Either that, or they're so hideously offensive that I'm restraining myself from doing a full review, lest it be another mouth-frothing session like my review of The Christmas Box.  Instead of wasting time on these individually, I thought I'd whip together a quickie rundown of some seasonal movies so far...

Holiday in Handcuffs utterly wastes a great title.  It missed all the opportunities to make a cool movie from this concept (Why couldn't it have been the logical sequel to Secretary, anyway?). Astonishingly bad. Like, "Did real people actually write this?"-bad. Lonely crazy artist/waitress girl kidnaps professional-looking guy to force him to pose as her boyfriend for her family's Christmas get-together. Reality is bent out of all proportion trying to explain why anyone with more brainpower than a hamster could not get himself out of this situation. But this being a chick flick, the guy is too much of a gentleman to "Punch her. Take her car keys. Leave. Call the police." Instead, he spends the entire weekend with her duck mouth and constant pouting, while putting on a good show for her insane family.  Can you possibly guess that they fall for each other, for real?  My Rating:  3/10.  Sanity Cost:  -15 points.  I wanted to kill everyone in this movie.

The Santa Trap.  Look at that cover.  Look at it!  Horrendously bad child actors mug for the camera while young daughter sets a household trap for Santa, intending to prove he is real to her doubting brother.  Her family is sad, see, because they've moved from a big city to New Mexico and it's 100 degrees outside on Christmas day, which really ought to be outlawed.  Dick Van Patten plays a god-awful Santa who gets caught by the brat, and then thrown in jail for some mistaken identity shenanigans with a bearded Stacy Keach, who later went home to flog himself for all that coke he did in the 80's that derailed his promising career and landed him in this sort of glop.  The family gets taken hostage, Keach is inept, Santa saves the day, the kids deliver gifts to the children at the local hospital, and perhaps the most brain-rending moment is when they encounter Adrienne Barbeau living homeless with her children and bring her a gift.  But she tells them she doesn't need a gift, because even though she's a lone single mom living in the street and her children are sleeping under cardboard, "It's Christmas Eve and we have love, and that's all we need."  Their consciences thus salved, our well-off family go back to their expensive suburban house and gorge on holiday food and expensive toys.  Hey, you might at least bring the homeless woman a sandwich, huh??  My Rating:  2/10.  Sanity Cost:  -35 points.  I wanted to kill almost everyone in this movie, except for Stacy Keach, who had a few funny lines.

The Netflix streaming poster previews are too small for me to have been able to read the fine print on this one, which is, "Putting Christ back in Christmas".  If I'd known I was getting into an overtly religious movie, I'd have watched something wholesome like "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" instead.  Christmas with a Capitol C is about a homey Alaskan town that is putting out their city hall nativity scene when they are interrupted by the return of the rich guy that went off to the big city, Daniel Baldwin, who spends the whole movie in a black coat driving a really stupid Porsche with his hair oiled back. He is an angry atheist and gets a court order to stop the town hall nativity scene because he wants to ruin Christmas, like all atheists do.   Self righteous rants are triggered from the religious characters on subjects like wishing Happy Holidays ("It's Christmas...MERRY CHRISTMAS! It's the ONLY holiday this month that anyone celebrates! Happy Holidays is liberal doubletalk!").  Yes, people actually deliver, straight-faced, lines like, "98% of America is Christian", "Hanukkah...Right!  Who celebrates that?", and so on.  Our "heroes" go berserk when the town banner is changed from "Merry Christmas" to "Season's Greetings". All this "ruining of Christmas" is done by the angry city atheist because he is lonely, has no family and no one to care for him, and is bitter and full of spite. One character opines, "Why can't these god-haters just leave us in peace?"

Amazingly, throughout the whole film no ones makes the argument of, "Hey, celebrate however you want, just please don't use my tax money to promote one religion over all the others, because we both know Christians would go BERSERK if their town hall sunk tax money into promoting a Muslim holiday."

By the end of the film, the townspeople learn that the angry city atheist is bankrupt, both morally and financially, and all his god-hate comes from the emptiness of his life, so an angelic young girl brings him Christmas cookies and all the townspeople come to his house to goddamn force him to celebrate Christmas like a proper person and in the end he's converted to the wonder of religion. And the Grinch himself carved the roast beast.

Except that the Grinch managed to get across pretty much the exact same message without being obnoxious, preachy, pandering, or making me want to attack the television set.  This movie is everything bad about religion rolled up into a ball, pressed, and steeped in oil of self-righteousness for seven days.  Truly awful.  My Rating:  0/10.  Sanity Cost:  -95 points.  I wanted to kill everyone in this movie, bury them, dig up their corpses, and hit them again with hammers just to be on the safe side.  Especially that bearded guy trying to be the hard right's answer to Robin Williams. 

My Rare Exports DVD can't show up in the mail soon enough...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Santa's Slay

NetFlix 3/5
IMDB 5.2/10
My Rating: 7/10
Sincerity Factor: 5/10
Treacle Factor: 1/10

Santa Claus is actually a demon that's been tied up in a legal contract for the past thousand years, forcing him to be good.  With the agreement finally at an end, Santa unleashes centuries of pent-up annoyance at the rosy-cheeked carolers of the world.

 This was absolutely hilarious.  In truth, I have found an enduring new holiday classic that will be part of our seasonal movie rotation for years to come, right alongside Miracle on 3th Street.  It is oft said, "They don't make them like this anymore", and here it is an accurate statement - They haven't made them like this since about 1989.  You'll swear you've died and gone to 80's cheese-horror heaven.  How can anyone not love a movie that kicks off with Fran Drescher being set on fire and then murdered by an insanely evil Santa?

I went into this with pretty low expectations, thinking it was just going to be one more god-awful "Madman in a Santa suit" slasher, but thankfully it is a league above, as well as having its tongue stuck so far into its cheek that it's wrapped around its brain.  Our evil Santa is played by some fellow named Bill Goldberg.  I'd never heard of him, but I understand he is a popular wrestler and it shows, since our Bad Santa kicks, bodyslams, and punches his way through a horde of victims in very WCW fashion, all the while channeling the personality of Jesse Ventura's cowboy-hat-wearing character from Predator.  Santa don't got time to bleed.

The plot, such as it is, explains that Santa is really an old world demon who was beaten 1,000 years ago by a disguised angel at a game of curling...  Yes, I'm not making this up... and because of this loss, Santa had to honor their bet and be a good guy for the next thousand years, bringing toys and Christmas cheer to all the kiddies of the world.  Now the contract is expiring, and before you can say, "Ho ho *Splat*", Santa's coming to town to kill everything in sight.  Standing in his way are the film's requisite teen couple, Nicolas [sic] and Mary [sic], and their wise old grandpa Robert Culp.

I was really delighted to see Culp in this, as he has always been one of my persona favorite actors, ever since seeing him in the classic Outer Limits episode "Demon with a Glass Hand" as a child.  Later, he starred in the excellent made-for-TV horror film Spectre (which I really must review here one of these days, because it's like a Hammer film mashed up with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Strange).  But his defining role for me will always be Special Agent Bill Maxwell, FBI, the often exasperated scenario-deviser in Greatest American Hero.  Here, he plays the kindly grandfather who's a bit nutty - He has the whole backstory in a huge Necronomicon-like tome, he lives in a house riddled with secret passages and safe rooms, and seems to have a special relationship with Santa.

The film is a cavalcade of wisecracks amid all the murders.  It's not particularly gory, which was fine by me, but there are boobies and in-jokes flying - The high point being the story of Bad Santa and the angel, told via jerky stop motion in the Rankin-Bass style, complete with a half-second appearance by Topper the penguin.  FX are perfectly tolerable and in fact the Santa and his sled look terrific:

The only demerit I can give it is for the lead teen male, whose mopey whining and angst made me hope the Santa would stick him in a grinder.  This is one high school guy who seriously doesn't deserve his girlfriend.  Otherwise, it's a hoot - Pop the butteriest tub of popcorn you can find, get some fellow fans of cheesy horror together, and revel in the seasonal carnage.  You know you've always wanted to see Santa run slow-driving old ladies off the street with his killer buffalo sled, laughing all the way.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Midnight Clear

NetFlix 3.1/5
IMDB 5.7/10
My Rating: 8/10
Sincerity Factor: 9/10
Treacle Factor: 3/10

 On Christmas Eve in a small town, five isolated strangers face despair, but as their individual lives cross paths, each is affected by the others.

So, after the utter misery that was The Christmas Box, here is something cheerier - A Christmas movie about loneliness, depression and suicide!   Straight-up warning going in - This is one of the darkest, bleakest holiday movies I've ever encountered, and yet if you stick with it, there probably won't be a dry eye in the house.  This is an extra-impressive accomplishment considering that the entire movie is rendered without sparkles, magical angels, Christmas wishes, miracles, or anything remotely reindeer-ey.  There isn't even any snow!

It's even more startling when you realize that this is taken from a story by Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the utterly retarded Left Behind series.   I very nearly turned it off when I saw that, because I could not imagine that anything written by a guy who believes the "good people" will be Raptured into space could possibly be enjoyable for me, and I was braced for another massive attack of bad religion.  When it was over, I found to my slightly stunned surprise that A) it was one of the best Christian movies I have ever seen, and B) ironically, this fundamentalist writer has also managed to write perhaps the best humanist Christmas film ever.  High praise, but I have to give him credit - Pick a holiday movie, ANY holiday movie, and you're almost certain to get something where all the unhappiness in the story is set right by some outside magical force, be it angels, God, or Santa.  Midnight Clear stands just about alone in presenting a movie where humans... Just humans... have magnificent impacts on each other's lives simply by doing the small decencies that make society work.

The basic story is this:  Five people face a Christmas Eve night at the end of their tethers.  Kirk is trapped in a dead-end business, a Quick-Stop he purchased in hopes it would be a valuable commercial location.  Young mother Mary struggles with life as a single mom after her husband is left brain-damaged by a car accident.  Mitch is a youth pastor tasked with inspiring his church teens but riven with self-doubt as to his ability to make faith "cool".  Retiree Eva lives alone and methodically plans suicide.  And the main character, Lefty (a stellar performance by Stephen Baldwin), is a hopeless homeless alcoholic, the sort of character we've all met at one time or another, a guy who simply cannot do anything right.  The movie follows each of these stories as they intersect and impact on each other in unexpected ways.

You know you're in for a different sort of Christmas film when it opens with a homeless character living out of his car and being fired on Christmas Eve.  And this isn't homelessness as big budget films would depict, no "wise" hobos or spiritual singing in the alleys here - Lefty is a loser, pure and simple.  It's a magnificent credit to Stephen Baldwin's acting abilities that he's able to imbue this no-hope character with something that keeps you watching, even as he visibly careens further downhill.  Lefty is "that guy", the one who always does the worst thing in the worst situation simply because he doesn't know how to recognize the right thing to do. He's been down so long that he can't see beyond begging the next guy out of $5 of gas money.  The scary thing is that I've been close enough to him to understand his situation...

And, I think, empathy is one of the movie's most-required traits to appreciate it.  In a nutshell, if you haven't stared into this abyss, you'll probably just find it depressing - Comfortable middle-class types will balk and want to change channels to the Hallmark film, or anything that seems cheerier.  Unless you've actually been in a situation where an unexpected stranger handing you a tiny bit of help literally meant all the world to you, you may have trouble appreciating this movie.  For those who can relate, though, it's a terrific film, and as the cover blurb says, "One's heart soars from watching it".

While Lefty's homeless Christmas Eve is the main focus, the other characters are also excellent.  K Callan's Eva, especially, is riveting...  This is an elderly lady who can glue you to the screen just watching her facial expressions change from one moment to the next.  You know her path from the opening scenes, where she hobbles onto a decrepit porch, fills a cat food bowl, pauses, and then pours the remaining food from the bag into a pile on the porch.  The grace, dignity, and stubbornness with which she advances her suicide plan is tragic and chilling.  Kirk and Mary provide some banter when Mary's car breaks down at the Quick Stop, but the fifth character, Mitch, might be my favorite even though he has possibly the least lines and focus.  Mitch is another soul adrift - Unlike the others, he's comfortable and supported by family and community, but is sunk into personal depression, unable to inspire or understand how to live a "good" life.  Maybe he's most of us - Wanting to do a good deed, but not knowing what to do and too inhibited to try.  His Christmas Eve job is unenviable... To herd a group of caroling teens from home to home, visiting shut-ins and passing out care packages from the church:

Mitch is living in the shadow of his injured friend, that guy who really was inspirational to the youth and always did everything right.  He also provides the film's small moments of comic relief as we hop from the tragedies of Lefty and Eva to the atrociously singing teens going door to door.  By the end, these five people have encountered each other in the ways they need, both knowingly and unknowingly, and the story clicks together like a puzzle as  dozen disparate threads snap into place.  It's inspiring and still believable - There are no perfect happy endings here and no one is miraculously delivered from their problems, but they get a tiny bit of help and sometimes that's enough.

Is it perfect?  Nope... The few points of Treacle I gave it above are due to a couple moments of Too-Neat coincidences - Moments or lines that might have been better cut.  Then again, what's a Christmas film without at least a tiny dollop of sentimentality?  I think what impresses me the most is that it's a clearly religious film and I actually liked it - Usually movies with religious messages put me off terribly (I have no problem with religious faith per se, but I have a potent dislike for the dogmatic organized church).  So if a movie can touch me, classic "angry atheist" that I am, it really must be doing something right.  And as I said, I'm left a bit boggled to find that the movie also carries such a profound humanist message, given the fundamentalism of the writer.

In the end, it's a Christmas movie that will make you think, and that's high praise indeed.