Monthly Archives: October 2004

Surviving Christmas (2004)

Surviving Christmas was originally supposed to be released, get this, a whole year ago for Christmas 2003. Paramount objected to the original release, saying it was too close to the release of their own Ben Affleck action flick, Paycheck (I doubt anything could have helped that turkey). So Dreamworks held onto it for another year and released it around the holidays. Halloween that is. The nation hasn’t even experienced Halloween or Thanksgiving yet, and we’re already getting a Christmas movie in our stocking. Given Affleck’s recent track record (the man hasn’t had a hit movie since 2002’s Sum of All Fears), audiences might not expect more than a lump of coal when his name’s above the title.

Drew (Affleck) is a cynical ad executive trying to figure out his plans for the approaching Christmas season. He gives his girlfriend tickets to Fiji, but she expected an engagement ring, so she dumps him right there claiming he doesn’t know what family life is. Drew finds his old family home now populated by the Valco family. He offers Papa Valco (James Gandolfini) $250,000 for him and his wife (Catherine O’Hara), son, and daughter (Christina Applegate) to be his family for Christmas. Papa Valco accepts. Drew is a stickler for family tradition, and mandates tree shopping, hat wearing, dinner script reading, and sleeping in his old room. The family’s hostility begins to wear down but things get even stickier when Drew falls for the Valco’s daughter, and then his ex-girlfriend shows up wanting to see his family.

The central flaw of the film is Affleck’s character. Drew is a jerk. That’s all there is to it. Somehow Affleck has become the go-to actor for arrogant, work obsessed men that desperately need to see that there’s more to life (Bounce, Jersey Girl, Forces of Nature). I think this is also the second or third time he’s played an ad executive. Surviving Christmas seems to exist in some weird dimension where a jerk shows us the true meaning of Christmas and family togetherness. What’s even worse is that Drew doesn’t change as a character, he doesn’t seem to grow, and the ending actually seems to reward him for his selfish, material, obnoxious ways.

I like Affleck, I really do. I like his work in Kevin Smith’s films, and he can make a good action hero if given the right material (Say a Sum of All Fears, and not so much a Paycheck). The man is charming, he’s eloquent, and he’s self-deprecating and constantly funny. He’s the kind of guy you want to buy a beer. Now, having said all this, Surviving Christmas is Affleck’s worst performance of his career. Affleck can do comedy, and not just in a Greek tragedy kind of way with his life in the tabloids. In Surviving Christmas, Affleck mugs like nothing is sacred. His eyes bug out. He exaggerates near any expression, from his smug grin to his childish fits. For a man who has Gigli, Reindeer Games, and Pearl Harbor to his credit, it’s something when it’s said that Surviving Christmas may be his acting low point.

Gandolfini seems to have been cast to play against type. He’s still got that flinty stare and slow simmer of anger, but he’s generally wasted. He’s the comic foil to Affleck’s jerk, and yet he still doesn’t come across that much better. His monstrous woolly beard is also mildly disturbing. Applegate brings more life to her love interest role than the role deserves. Her romance with Drew seems so spontaneous, especially given her natural hostility to him. The only actor that has any real moments to stretch and shine is O’Hara. A veteran of improv, O’Hara has some of the film?s funnier moments, like when she makes mini marshmallows with a butcher’s knife, or her wild photo shoot Drew arrangers for her.

Surviving Christmas is indeed a chore to sit through. The movie, at its gooey heart, doesn’t know what kind of holiday film it wants to be. A good example is the opening montage of holly jolly Christmas sequences. In between standard, saccharine moments of feeling, there?s an old grandmotherly woman who bakes a tray of gingerbread men, with frosted frowns, and then sticks her head in an oven. Huh? Surviving Christmas tries to have it both ways. It wants to lampoon Christmas sentiment with the occasional touch of dark humor, but then it plays into a feel-good holiday formula complete with sled rides, tree lighting, and hot cocoa. The result is a schizophrenic comedy that doesn’t work being dark or cuddly.

The whole wacky premise of Surviving Christmas screams sitcom, and the conventional proceedings and stock characters that follow guarantee it. The only way this could be more of a sitcom is if they drew a line down the middle of the house, the boss was coming over for dinner unexpectedly, and a pesky cat swallowed someone’s wedding ring. Surviving Christmas‘ relation to a sitcom is the only way I can explain why the film has stale jokes about internet porn (What, there’s porn on the Internet? When did this happen?). There’s even horny old men and wedgie jokes too! This is a movie in desperate need of a laugh track. I kept expecting everyone to turn their heads and go, “Dreeeeeeeeew” and then Affleck shrugs his shoulders, bugs his eyes out, smirks, and the studio audience goes wild.

It probably doesn’t help that Surviving Christmas is credited to over five writers and was directed by the director of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The comedy rarely hits its marks because it’s so frustratingly tied up in its identity. The film wants to make incest jokes, but then in the same breath it wants us to listen to some syrupy back story explaining why Drew is the lonely, socially challenged jerk he is. The laughs of Surviving Christmas are mostly limited to broad slapstick and the occasional inappropriate remark. The preview audience I watched the film with seemed to be rolling in the aisles while I mostly rolled my eyes.

There will be a section of the public that enjoys Surviving Christmas. Fans of Christmas cheer and broad PG-13 comedies may find laughs amongst the wreckage. Surviving Christmas doesn’t have the gusto to commit to black comedy like Bad Santa (a new Christmas classic), but it also doesn’t build its characters strongly enough for an audience to care about them. They’re all mainly jerks and twits. This is a Christmas movie that doesn’t know what stripes it is. How else to explain it coming out in late October.

Nate’s Grade: C

Team America: World Police (2004)

The MPAA is mad, plain and simple. It’s an organization intended to rate movies so our wee ones don’t stumble into something not intended for their virgin eyes. They also have a long history of haggling with filmmakers over ratings and the necessary cuts to ensure a commercial rating. And, in their eyes, puppet sex was deemed too indecent. You see, the MPAA initially gave the all-puppet action movie Team America: World Police, the new film from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, an NC-17 for an extended scene of two marionettes engaging in enough sexual positions to make a G.I Joe blush. However, we’re talking about puppets, people! Puppets! They’re not even anatomically correct. Does anyone find it crazy that a governing board says watching two dolls bang together in “simulated sex” (is there any other kind with puppets?) is inappropriate for all ages under 17? Surely, if the MPAA is to be eventually reformed, this will be Exhibit A.

Team America is an elite team that fights terrorists and police the globe in red, white, and blue helicopters, jets, and flying limos (the team logo is a bald eagle with the earth in its beak). The team leader Spottswoode recruits Broadway actor Gary, star of the musical Lease (key song: “Everyone has AIDS”), because they need someone to pretend to be a terrorist and flush out their secret plan. Gary is reluctant at first but agrees to join the team.

Team America flies to Paris and Cairo to battle terrorists. They snuff the terrorists, but world monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Sphinx get lost among the collateral damage. Things look promising for Team America, and Gary expresses feelings for Lisa, a blonde psychologist haunted by the loss of a teammate and a lover.

Terrorists strike the Panama Canal in retaliation, and a group of celebrities led by Alec Baldwin condemn Team America. Michael Moore, with hotdog in each hand, protests outside Team America’s headquarters. In these moments of disarray, we learn the true source of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and brains behind the attacks is North Korean dictator Kim Jon Il, who has a plan for “9/11 times 2,358.”

While not reaching the satiric highs of the South Park movie, Team America is a political movie that lambastes both sides of the coin. This has been a very heavy year for political films, from leftist documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Hunting of a President and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, to more subtle jabs at the current administration (the very Cheney-like VP of The Day After Tomorrow), to more obvious indictments (the stuttering, axiom-loving dumbbell candidate in John Sayles’ Silver City). So in a year bursting to the seams with political screeds, it’s quite refreshing to have a movie that lampoons both the Right and the Left.

Team America satirizes the arrogant, shoot first ask later, cavalier foreign policy America has been accused of (“We’re going to bring democracy to you if it kills you.”). The film also criticizes Hollywood celebrities who feel that their uninformed, unsolicited opinions are germane to the political process. In the end, it’s the celebrities who get the worst of the beating (Matt Damon appears to be, um, challenged). Parker and Stone shrewdly satirize pretentiousness and ego, no matter which side it falls upon. They lose their focus as the film enters its final gory act, instead resorting to garish ways of killing puppets.

Team America has a good one-two combination with its political punch, but where it really shines is the knockout it delivers to bombastic Jerry Bruckheimer action films. This is a delirious send-up of a wide array of action movie clich├ęs, including team members and their secret crushes as well as their hidden traumas. Characters will fight or die in slow-motion for dramatic effect. Characters will all have some special talent that will come into play at an important moment. Kim Jon Il has a typical villain lair, including large shark tanks and trap doors. When a character dies in the opening sequence he mutters the line, “I feel so… cold[.” Hilarious! There’s even an entire training montage set to a song called, “Montage” (sample lyric: “Show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what’s going on!/ And with every shot show just a little improvement – to show it all would take too long!/ That’s called a montage!/ MONTAGE!/ Even Rocky had a montage!/ MONTAGE! “). There’s also a love song all about Pearl Harbor sucking as a movie.

Like all the other films by Parker and Stone, Team America is a robust musical. The songs aren’t as sharp as the ditties from the South Park movie, but they’re still quite amusing. The Team America theme is a rousing anthem called “America, Fuck Yeah!” which is a perfect example of the film’s simultaneous mixture of the profane and the brilliant. Later in the film, when Team America is taking a public backlash, there’s a somber remix of the theme that’s even funnier.

Some things are just funnier because of the limitations of puppets. Watching two marionettes try to fight is hilarious, because they really do nothing but kick their legs and limply slap each other. Before Team America, I never realized how funny it was just to watch marionettes walk. They’re so awkward and jumpy, that just seeing them step from side to side can put a smile on your face. When the music of Kill Bill comes onscreen, and the puppets walk in slow dramatic fashion, it’s even more absurd and funny.

Parker and Stone also have fun with self-awareness, like when they take Gary on a tour of the sights of Washington D.C. and he stands next to an actual tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. There’s also a Matrix parody that actually comes off as fresh. There’s a giddiness to watching puppets swear, fight, vomit, stagger drunk, and even do the nasty. It’s a gimmick that doesn’t get old.

This is also one terrific looking movie. The sets are massively intricate and the photography by Bill Pope (who did shoot the Matrix films) bathes the proceedings in beautiful mixtures of light and dark. There may be moments you forget that what you’re watching are miniatures. It is filmed to look like a typical action movie. The music is a spot-on parody of action films, with its heaviness on flutes when the villain is around, to the foreign lady mournfully singing during scenes of tragedy. There’s fantastic craft and detail worked into Team America that I can unequivocally say Team America: World Police is the best looking, R-rated all-marionette musical action movie… ever.

Team America may be the funniest film of the year. There are some moments of drag, and sometimes less profanity would make certain punch lines better (unfunny homophobic jokes like the acronym F.A.G.), but the movie is a comedy that’s pee-your-pants funny. Team America is definitely not for kids (what kind of irresponsible parent assumes “puppets = for kids” and ignores an R-rating?). Because of the equal opportunity satire, this may end up being a movie that conservatives and liberals both claim to be their own. For fans of erudite satire, crude humor, and puppet sex, Team America will be a blast. Make sure to stay throughout the end credits to hear a special closing song not in the film.

Nate’s Grade: B

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