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.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Christmas Box

NetFlix N/A
IMDB 7/10
My Rating: 2/10  
Sincerity Factor: 0/10
Treacle Factor: 9/10

A struggling small business owner and his family move in with an elderly heiress seeking paid companions, then get nagged to the brink of insanity about their lifestyle.

(For these Christmas films, I've added a couple of new categories up top.  Sincerity Factor is just that...  Does the movie's holiday message feel sincere or forced, artificial, or commercial?  Treacle Factor is a measure of how syrupy the flick is, useful for those allergic to rosy-cheeked children learning miracles are real.)

I cast around a bit trying to decide what to kick off the holiday movie deluge with, and in the end I picked this simply because I already had a lot of it written.  Be warned that this will be one of the angriest movie reviews I've ever posted here.  I did not just actively dislike this film, I loathed it - I hated its message, its condescending tone, its hateful subtexts, and I came away wanting to hurt it.  This is a movie that I'd love to beat to death in a back alley with a nail-studded baseball bat.  Do NOT watch this. If you find yourself looking for a holiday-themed movie, please go and watch Gremlins instead.  I enjoy some warm & fuzzy holiday movies, the kind that make cool people blech, but holy cochon, this was awful. Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas may have been saccharine heartwarming fluff, but at least it had camp, humor, and a positive message. Christmas Box was just.... damn.

How could a movie offend me so?  Me, the guy who will happily watch, "Chainsaw Strippers from Mars"?  Well, let me stress first off that I'm not really a Christmas curmudgeon.  I like the Grinch, the Charlie Brown special, Cosmic Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and any number of other holiday faves.  This movie, however, belongs to a class of preachy, overly religious, exclusionary holiday films that make me gag - Watching it is like having an officious churchlady wag her finger in your face for two hours.  So, where to start with this...?

Our hero, played by Richard Thomas (and indeed, the only reason I gave this even 2 points was that the actors were good) is a struggling small business owner trying to keep his family sheltered and fed until his business starts making money.  Anyone who has been in this situation can immediately relate to his difficulties - Stress, constant overwork, not able to spend enough quality time with his family, and the daily fears of failure and destitution.  Unable to make rent money, the family is forced to take shelter in the mansion home of an aging and bitter heiress, to serve as maids and groundskeepers.  Mrs. Parkin is a thoroughly unpleasant character who immediately takes a dislike to Richard, and spends most of the film either chiding him or undermining his efforts to make his business work.  In the end, we discover that she lost a child and is dying, and her displeasure with Richard is due to what she sees as him not having "real values" (ie, not spending more time with his family), and of course not being Christian enough to suit her.  Eventually the cutesy angels come for her and we're supposed to feel sad that this cancerous old bitch is dead, and inspired at the wholesome bonding of the young family.

Inexplicably (to me anyway), it has a 4.5/5 star rating on Amazon and a 7+ rating on IMDB, where loads of reviewers say it is their favorite Christmas film and is the most wonderful holiday film they've ever seen. Things like this really make me believe I belong to an offshoot DNA strand of homo sapien that's just utterly disconnected.

It is a hopelessly Christian film, but not Christian is an inspiring way, like Midnight Clear or Come to the Stable - Instead it's Christian in a cloying, exclusionary way, all images of little girls dressed in white who are supposed to be angels, complete with fluffy wings glued to their backs. The central message is, "Being Christian is the happy pill that absolves you of all responsibility for practical matters, AND makes you special and better than everyone else too."

Let's take this thing apart.  Our hero is finishing up his first struggling year in business. His wife does not work, but stays home to care for their daughter. This makes her so "stressed" that she blames all their problems on her husband.  When the family moves in with the Wicked Witch, the wife immediately bonds with her and feels warm and happy, while the husband is unable to sleep, suffers nervous anxiety, and begins hearing strange noises in the night.

At this point it goes schizo and tries to become a half decent horror movie - The old lady is creepy and treats the husband with contempt, he can't sleep due to the rattling radiator pipes, weird things start happening, he suffers from repeating dreams, and he is continually being drawn to the spooky attic because every time he is alone, he hears an attic music box playing. Unfortunately, instead of proceeding to the, "GET OUT" stage, he just gets more and more frazzled. Seems he's working like mad to get his business on solid ground, and can't spend as much time with his family as he'd want to. He even commits the unpardonable sin of missing his daughter's play. Despite the fact that their stay in Hell House is wearing him out and making him screw up at work, his wife loves it there and has zero sympathy - Instead, she whines at every possible moment about how he isn't taking off work to spend enough quality time with the family. The old lady bangs on about this too, in between delivering imperious commentary on his lack of religious knowledge and promising his daughter he'll do various things with her without consulting him regarding his schedule first.

I will admit total bias here. I KNOW how hard it is to get a business up and going. I know what it's like to have no choice about working seven day weeks and that there are way too many times you want to go relax with your wife, but instead have to sit up doing work. So, I could completely sympathize with the husband. His wife and the old lady, however, looked on this all with the sulky incomprehension of those who have always had money, either by being born into it or by having someone else hand them a paycheck all their life. Alas, the entire movie is slanted such that the "problem" of the movie is that the husband isn't spending enough time with his family, never mind that he's not a wealthy heiress living in an inherited mansion like the crotchety old bat, and forget that all his work is going towards getting them a home of their own OUT of the Overlook.  No, this is everything that Occupy Wall Street is about, in a nutshell - The rich 1%er who believes she has every right to judge the struggling 99%ers, despite never having had to worry about a bill in her life.

Because of this, every time Richard is treated like dirt (often) for being late to his daughter's recital due to work pressure, let's just say my sentiments were not with the wife.... In fact, by the end of the film I was hoping he'd go all Jack Torrance on everyone in sight. The wife thinks it's really neato keen that he keeps having recurring dreams of angels; commentary that always seemed ready to be followed by, "OK, I'm off to my crystal healing class now, have fun at that dreary job, dear."

Eventually they find out that the old bat had a child who died young, and her husband left her. This broken family history is why she's so eager to force the current family into being a warm and cuddly family unit, mainly by berating and harassing the husband to work less... because everyone knows that what a new and struggling business needs most is for its owner to start randomly taking off and showing up late and blowing off appointments. There is some further stuff about the first gift of Christmas being baby Jesus, twinkly fairy lights, angelic children appearing in hospital rooms and so on, but by the end of the movie Emily and I were both so annoyed and pissed off that I'm not even sure what the point was.  No, wait, I got exactly what the point was - Wealthy Christian white people have the innate right to judge others and tell them how they should live their lives, and if you argue with this viewpoint you are a Bad Person who must be corrected.  I won't even get into comparing the "epic tragedy" of Nurse Ratched's lost child to the millions of poor people out there suffering from broken families,  other than to say that it's too bad she ended up a lonely old crone but gee, having a million dollars in the bank probably helps soften the pain a little compared to a single mom trying to scrape by on minimum wage.

Better Christian movies can get across a religious message without mentioning religion, by illustrating how powerful hope and kindness can be. Christmas Box presents religion as a "Get out of hell free" card - You can be a cruel, conniving, vicious bitch but as long as you believe in baby Jebus, the angels will come for you. And trying to support your family by making sure they have groceries and shelter is wrong - "Real" support means blowing off your business responsibilities and spending all your time with them, starving together in a cardboard box somewhere.  (I once heard a TV preacher talking about how he counseled the low income people in his church on their budgets, and always told them to put GOD at the top of their budget, and to give money to the church first, before they paid their bills.  I was left stunned that people did not revolt and drag him screaming off the stage, but then again, some people thought Gordon Gecko was a hero, too...)

All in all, it had a horrible message about responsibility towards family, enough gag-inducing Hallmark moments to put down a rhino, a twisted theme that it's OK for wealthy religious people to lecture the poor on how they live their lives, and the worst angels I have ever seen.

This movie was not just bad, it actively pissed me off and made me want to hit it. It has no redeeming qualities, IMO - Avoid like the plague.  

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas

Like a freezing arctic wind, Christmas is coming for your sssssssoul...

I used to be a Christmas curmudgeon, and hated the season with a passion for its overload and its commercialism.  I feel a lot different about it these days, and decided to celebrate here in the pages of Ye Olde KFP with a two month deluge of holiday films to make you squeak like a mouse on a downhill sled.  We'll have seasonal thrills, chills, a horror flick or two, and enough saccharine-flavored family fare to choke a Southern Baptist.  What will happen when Yours Truly has to sit through movies like "Kuffy Koala's Very Special Christmas"?  I don't know... yet.  But I promise to do my best to give you some groove-tastic reviews of everything we watch, for as long as I can take it.

There will be the usual drive-in flicks mixed in too, because there's no way in hell I can survive watching two months of Made-for-TV Hallmark films without breaking them up with some bouts of insane mass murder... and I'll probably watch some horror movies also.  I don't know how much time I'll have to devote to this wee project, but I do want to at least try to share some obscure holiday films that I happen to love, like 70's gem Black Christmas, Spain's wicked little 80's homage A Christmas Tale, Joulutarina (Maybe the best Santa Claus story ever put on film), forgotten classics like Come to the Stable, and modern indie fables like Midnight Clear (A bleak little movie that's virtually the anti-Christmas film, yet still manages to have one of the most honest Christmas messages you can find).  And also, I am absolutely going to give the film The Christmas Box the public beat-down it deserves for being one of the most utterly wretched and insulting holiday movies ever committed to celluloid.

So.  Christmas is coming.  Join me over the next two months for some black humor, some holiday horror, and occasionally even an actual inspirational movie sifted out of the 800 pound sacks of glitter and frosting.

PS - By the way, you may notice some small changes here at KFP other than the seasonal logo up top.  Our Tumblr page and links are gone.  I gave up on Tumblr - The lack of ability to interact with followers really killed it for me, and since I'm already spread over Facebook and G+ and Twitter, it just wasn't worth maintaining one more social network.  In its place I've added a G+ widget to help you find my G+ page if you're interested in following any of the random oddness I dribble. 

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