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The Grinch (2018)

The second go at a twenty-first century feature-length Grinch movie is a thoroughly, spectacularly bland movie. This mediocre enterprise barely stretches to feature length at 86 minutes and it lacks the charm of the original Dr. Seuss cartoon. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green recluse with his three-sizes-too-small heart set on stealing the Christmas celebration of others. That’s great casting, but why is he settling for his Doctor Strange-style American voice? The man has such a natural, rich, velvety voice. Another miscue is the fact that this Grinch isn’t really feared by the people of Whoville. He lives just outside of ton and isn’t really that mean. He’s less a villain and more just a grumpy sad guy who has to over explain everything for the audience to understand (“I thought stealing Christmas would make me feel better, but really I was running from myself…”). This movie is brightly colored and nicely animated but it’s strictly just for little kids. The lessons are pretty simplistic. The characters are mostly annoying, precocious, or mute. The humor is mostly slapstick. There is nothing to engage bigger thinkers. This Grinch movie actually made me start re-evaluating the 2000 Ron Howard version, which at least tried something and had an enjoyably hammy Jim Carrey performance with some creepy good makeup prosthetics, and I didn’t even like that movie. The new animated Grinch film is inoffensively lackluster. At best it’s a disposable 90 minutes to distract easily distractible children and give mom and dad time for a nap.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Bad Santa 2 (2016)

bad_santa_two_ver2A comedy with no reason to exist is a lousy thing and it’s even worse when that comedy seems to know it, and thus is the pitiful state of Bad Santa 2, a sequel that feels far too stale. I wonder if the original movie was as enjoyable as I recall or if in the ensuing 13 years we’ve just become more inured to the casual vulgarity of these movies, but I was left bored by the overwhelming listlessness of this comedy. Billy Bob Thornton returns but he’s generally on autopilot. The loose plot involves another score, this time engineered by his mother (Kathy Bates), but really it’s mostly a hangout film with nasty characters insulting each other in painfully provocative ways. I was getting restless and the comic set pieces are to a whole poorly developed and routinely settle on the easiest joke, which is again witless shock value. There’s no range, no unexpected turns, so much of the comedy falls flat, the same smutty joke repeated with little variance. Stay tuned for a tepid end credits sequence that justifies the “graphic nudity” of the rating (hopefully Snapchat does not get any ideas for the tie-in). Without a stronger plot and characters, the shock value begets diminished returns, and even my preview audience was deadly silent for long stretches. I laughed about ten times total, not enough to justify a theatrical viewing but perhaps enough to keep it on TV while folding laundry. The strange thing about a dark comedy is that it feels like all the consequences from the plot were cut in editing as several storylines and their reasons to exist fail to fully manifest. There are payoffs you anticipate that never come and storylines that seem created entirely for reasons that never arise. The most consistent comic presence is Brett Kelly replaying his now grown-up simpleton from the first movie. Kelly is the only actor who plays a different note, providing a dose of unyielding optimism that befuddles. If you’re a big fan of the original and just looking for another fix perhaps Bad Santa 2 will provide enough nasty humor to satisfy. By the end I felt drained from this thoroughly pointless affair.

Nate’s Grade: C

Krampus (2015)

jEYZE9aNot quite funny enough and not quite scary enough, Krampus is a holiday antidote that wants to be a modern-day Gremlins but needed to be nastier, darker, or some variant with the suffix of –er. Writer/director Michael Dougherty has been down this holiday road before with Trick ‘r Treat, a superb horror anthology genre gem that was buoyed by a twisted sense of humor and a clever criss-crossing set of storylines that pollinated plenty of payoffs. Krampus begins with a brilliant opening credit sequence that sets a high bar o promise the movie will ultimately be unable to deliver, watching slow-mo stampeding shoppers fighting over Black Friday discounts set to a classic Bing Crosby yuletide tune. From there it’s more a Griswald dysfunctional family gathering until one of the young boys rips up his letter to Santa in disillusionment, calling forth Krampus and his minions. From there the family is terrorized and come closer together in struggle, trying to understand their predicament. There are a few great character designs for the minions, especially a jack-in-the-box whose face unhinges into a sarlac pit of teeth. The PG-13 rating keeps the film from getting too gory or too wicked, which also belies the fact that at heart it’s really an old-fashioned Christmas morality play about loving one another. I was ready to groan with what appeared to be the ending but Dougherty at least subverts the expected and makes sure that there are lasting consequences for bad behavior. This isn’t going to be remembered as a holiday classic but if you’re looking for a fun horror comedy, Krampus at least has something to offer before you feel left wanting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014)

kirk_camerons_saving_christmas_a_pGiven the title, Kirk Cameron’s prominent placement, and a poster involving Cameron with a background explosion of holiday paraphernalia, one would assume Saving Christmas would concern itself with the oft-repeated “War on Christmas.” I was expecting Cameron to lament our use of “Happy Holidays” and the like. Perplexingly, Cameron’s war is not with those outside Christianity but those within. Saving Christmas is a shoddy evangelical sermon with shoddier theology, straining to fill out a running time, and ultimately being pro-materialism and anti-empathy. Come again?

At Kirk’s (Cameron) family Christmas party, his brother-in-law Christian (Darren Doane) is a Grinch. He complains that Christmas has been co-opted by secularism. Santa Claus and other symbols with pagan origins dwarf the nativity and baby Jesus. Christian removes himself from the party and sits in his car. Kirk won’t allow this to stand. He gets inside the car and proceeds to explain why Christian is wrong about Christmas.

12650-SC_0033.1200w.tnTo call this a film is to be more charitable than perhaps even Jesus would be. Saving Christmas (or Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas as listed in certain places) is a smug sermon presented by Kirk Cameron lecturing his “bro”-in-law in a car. The majority of the film takes place in a parked car. If that sounds deeply cinematic to you, then stick with me. The film shambles its way to 80-minutes, exasperating to fill out a minimum feature-length running time. There’s about ten minutes of “hilarious” bloopers. There’s a five-minute opening where Cameron speaks directly into the camera and sips from his mug of hot chocolate three separate times. There’s a five-minute, though it feels tortuously endless, “hip hop Christmas dance” performance by a bunch of white people (it is powerfully uncoordinated, like you’re watching someone’s home movie of their kids). You do get to watch Cameron effectively do the Worm, though (his finest acting moment onscreen, in my humble opinion). There’s also the occasional, very tin-eared comedy break with supporting characters that skirt the line into stereotypes. When it all comes together, there’s maybe a total of 40 minutes of an actual movie here, laboriously stretched out. And when I say “movie” I mean Cameron and Christian talking back and forth in a stationary car. This is not a movie. At all.

Director and co-writer Doane is one of the most inept filmmakers I’ve observed. This is a horrible looking movie with many clueless edits and strange visual compositions. His onscreen wife is always seen looking wary and in slow motion, like her face has frozen. There’s also the annoying habit of not properly framing his subjects, who will get caught behind a pot of hot chocolate or some poinsettias. This is just bad filmmaking. The lighting is amateurish or overdone, like when Kirk spends about five minutes standing back-lit, as to communicate his inherently angelic nature. Doane will also keep focusing on repeating scenes like he’s filling time. The film has a very rushed and patched-together feel, as if they had a weekend to film it at Cameron’s place with his friends and family. The “comedy relief” is also terribly executed, with two characters having a conversation holding mugs to their face, the better to disguise the fact that one of them is not actually speaking his lines. The pacing is also dead. The movie keeps faking you out when it’s going to end but then continues on, overstaying its welcome so Cameron can have yet another victory lap to hear himself talk.

Cameron and his producers seem to subscribe to an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to recognizing the malleable symbolism of cultural artifacts. Is there any harm in acknowledging the past connections of certain ceremonial customs and artifacts we use today? While the origins of the Christmas tree can go back to the pagans, Cameron seems to forget to mention that it was Martin Luther who took the Christmas tree as a German holiday tradition and gave it a Christian spin. Of course acknowledging such would indicate that the Christmas tree wasn’t always the same symbol. But who cares? History is a melting pot as far as cultures are concerned, and we pick up many customs that become passed down for various reasons, often expanding and adapting. Is there any implicit harm in simply admitting that a Christmas tree has an origin that predates Christianity? Today it is a different symbol commemorating a different holiday. Just because we know history doesn’t somehow devalue our customs and traditions. Cameron and his cronies seem to disagree, which is why he presents flimsy arguments to reclaim historical authority. What he’s really doing is treating the symbols of the season as metaphors, applying deeper meaning to them. That’s fine and good. If Cameron wants to see the Christmas tree as a representation of the cross, or the trees of the Garden of Eden, that’s fine. But he shouldn’t pretend that this interpretation is gospel. That’s the thing about metaphors; they’re subjective and pliable. They are not absolute.

Amazingly, Saving Christmas ends up becoming a misguided and ludicrous defense of materialism and the commercialism attached to Christmas. In Cameron’s very narrow perspective, anything associated with the holiday has to be positive. Yes, Cameron literally argues that all the material excess and spending actually honors God. Instead of looking at the presents under the tree as just that, look at them as the outline of a skyline of a new Jerusalem, Cameron offers in one of the more head-scratching moments. He conflates the spending of money with celebration, admonishing people to buy “the biggest ham, the richest butter” as long as they just don’t “max out their credit cards.” That’s the limit he sets, so everything below that must be agreeable. Just to hammer the message home further, Cameron says that materialism is good because “Christ was made material.” That sure is a slippery slope of ethics there. It’s not much of a leap to then justify greed or to equate spending the most money with being the godliest. Why would any film, let alone a Christian one, choose to defend unchecked materialism?

kirk-cameron-saving-christmasI know Christian is more a foil for Cameron to helpfully inform, a straw man who cannot articulate his intellectual rationale, but Christian is the worst skeptic of all time. If he truly believed what he does then he should be able to provide evidence to support his stance. It wouldn’t be hard. The historical record is loaded with stuff ready-made to counter-argue Kirk’s cherry picking of relevant theology. The very concept of late December existing as a pagan holiday celebrating the winter solstice (Saturnalia) is backed up by a treasure-trove of sources, despite Cameron’s snide rejoinder that “last time I checked, God created the winter solstice.” The Romans would even exchange gifts on December 23 in celebration and feast. If Christian were a real skeptic, he’d at least have a cursory knowledge of this stuff before even approaching specifics. Instead he sputters and is proven to be a fraud, duped into believing these anti-Christmas thoughts. Every time Kirk finishes another of his rather unconvincing asides, Christian shakes his head, dumbfounded, and says he never looked at things like that. He is the most easily converted skeptic since the Spanish Inquisition.

I kept going back in my head to a vital point of Christian’s that is never referenced or challenged by Cameron: wouldn’t all this money better be spent helping the disadvantaged? Christian looks at the extravagant money spent on an ostentatious party and thinks of how many people could have been fed, how many wells could have been dug in villages. “You’re wrong,” Kirk says. “About everything. You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.” Even as Cameron bends over backwards to defend materialism, he never addresses Christian’s fundamental point, which is that the money can be better spent elsewhere. to the movie’s worldview, Christian is a “jerk” and he’s “terrorizing” (I kid you not, they specifically use the word “terrorize”) his family with his negativity. This is a guy who wants to put the “Christ back in Christmas” and he’s setup as the bad guy. He’s not storming the party, aggressively challenging people, calling them names. He sits to himself, eventually leaving the space for his car. It doesn’t sound like he’s terrorizing anyone and is rather considerate of others. No matter, no one is allowed to have a different opinion than Kirk Cameron and so he will not allow one man’s empathy to bring everyone else down as they spend lavishly to celebrate the birth of a poor carpenter.

And that’s what’s most distressing for me when it comes to this poorly made and poorly reasoned movie; I’m concerned that others will use Cameron’s distorted teaching as a justification for excess over empathy. Cameron seems to use the film as a defense of his affluent privilege. He uses the Bible to back up his lifestyle and to defend materialism. Did we forget that part where Jesus said to sell all your possessions and help the poor? The film is packaged as a comedy and a family movie with a spiritually uplifting message, but what’s so uplifting about saying “SPEND SPEND SPEND” is how you show love? Just because Cameron says a nutcracker is representative of King Herod’s foot soldiers prowling Jerusalem for the baby Jesus doesn’t make it strictly so. To call this a movie would be too charitable and I am not in the season of giving. Saving Christmas is a lump of coal disguised as a open-hearted message. Skip this movie and donate your money instead to some charity. At least that will do some actual good.

Nate’s Grade: D

A Madea Christmas (2013)

madea_christmas_ver3I had no plans to watch this movie, let alone in a theater and on opening night. Then one fall weekend, my pal decided to raise the stakes on our fantasy football match-up, and then Ronnie Hillman couldn’t hold on to the ball, and I lost by four points. My punishment: seeing Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas in the theater. My friend and critic Ben Bailey has taken it upon himself to watch and review all the Madea films, so he was ready and planning to watch the latest. I accompanied him for one magical night of holiday messages bequeathed by a large man in drag pretending to be an old woman.

Madea (Tyler Perry) is called into action to help drive her sister Eileen (Ana Maria Horsford) to Alabama. Eileen wants to surprise her daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), for Christmas. Lacey is working in a small-town as a teacher. Her husband, Conner (Eric Lively), is trying to engineer a new strain of corn to help his hometown confront a water shortage. There’s just one problem. Eileen hasn’t told her mom she got married… and to a white man. Lacey is worried that the news would kill her mother since Eileen has a weak heart. So Conner has to pretend to be a farmhand while Eileen visits. Then, unexpectedly, Conner’s parents (Larry the Cable Guy, Kathy Najimy) arrive to spend Christmas with their family, but they too must get in on the act. The small town is also in trouble of losing lots of money if they cannot put together their annual Christmas Jubilee celebration. Lacey’s ex-boyfriend Oliver (JR Lemon) swoops in to offer a corporate savior, but there are strings to attached, and he’d certainly like to get closer to Lacey.

I am about to type a string of words I never thought could possibly be put together in the English language: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, also starring thespian Larry thy Cable Guy, is not altogether terrible. I feel like a weight has been lifted just admitting this. Oh, let there be no question that this is a bad movie in just about every way, but the simply bad and poorly executed outweighs the terrible. To be fair my expectations could not have been any lower, especially after suffering through my first Tyler Perry movie ever this year, the earlier 2013 film, Temptation. This was my first Madea film. Part of my other entertainment was observing my audience, the mostly full theater on opening night, and charting their reactions to Madea and my own differences in opinion. I can’t in good conscience suggest this is a reason for people to go see this movie, but there it is.

111083_galEvery actor not named Perry or Cable Guy looks like they could sure use some more direction; they’re hungry for it. Actually, Najimy (The Guilt Trip) and Larry make a good team and you’re actually pleased when they enter the story, providing an alternative to Madea’s shenanigans. I’ll credit Perry with this twist: the redneck family is tolerant from day one and compassionate human beings and the conflict focuses on a black racist against white people. Although in the year 2013, inter-racial marriage seems like a strangely dated conflict to get so worked up over. This is also the least grating Larry the Cable guy has ever been in a movie, including the Pixar Cars franchise. But these are acting professionals. The rest of the cast is filled with Pretty Bland Young People, all of who look like they’d rather be on a TV soap. Sumpter (Sparkle) in particular comes across like discount Zoe Saldana. Hey, there is a former CW star involved in this too, Chad Michael Murray (TV’s un-canceable One Tree Hill, House of Wax) and while his character is dumb, the town’s chief redneck, he’s actually fine when you can make out what he’s saying. But the best actor in the whole movie turns out to be Alicia Witt (Urban Legends, 88 Minutes) as Murray’s put-upon wife. If there’s anything approaching subtlety in this mess, it’s through Witt’s graceful performance of a woman struggling against her husband for what she believes is best for her child.

The Madea character, Perry’s most famous alter ego, can have a numbing effect that mellows your judgment of an otherwise unlikable figure. Our introduction to the matriarch is her brief stint working at a retail store. She’s unfailingly rude to customers asking ordinary questions, she’s hostile, threatens violence readily, and then, when rightly fired, creates a scene and literally steals from the store. In mere minutes, I’m left with the impression that this elderly grandmother who looks like a linebacker is just a horrible human being and should be in jail. And this impression sticks for some time, that is, until you begin to adopt a Stockholm syndrome-like appreciation for her mean-spirited bickering and retaliation. As we sit and watch Eileen act like a horrible human being, so condescending and needlessly hurtful to her unknown in-laws, the balance of most terrible shifts, and we start to root for Madea because she’s the only one who cuts through the nonsense, the only one to speak truth to Eileen’s reproachful behavior. In the end, you may come to appreciate her being there to set people straight. I still think the whole Madea character is a large miscalculation on Perry’s part, a character that’s never as funny as he thinks it is (though eight movies in, so what do I know?). The constant string of malapropisms feels like the dying riffs of a deflated improv jag. There are several scenes that involve lines given off screen as if Perry is still experimenting with the scene. In the end credits bloopers, which are also not funny, it looks like Perry’s shooting style is just to turn the camera on and say whatever. This is a character born to be a supporting player if utilized at all. Though her best asset is when here happens to be a worse character onscreen to whom she can focus her ire. So as long as Madea keeps starring in movies alongside more horrible human beings, we should be fine.

Part of my forgiveness with several of the film’s sins goes back to its inception as a Christmas fable. You see these kinds of movies all the time on TV, where the threat of not having the small town’s Christmas ceremony is going to bankrupt the whole town in an impenetrable dark cloud of holiday misery. These are the movies where plots hinge on silly things given way too much significance, and where solutions can be pulled out of nowhere and the film’s family-friendly message tied up nicely in a bow. In other words, it’s a world not meant to remotely echo our own reality. And so I ended up giving A Madea Christmas more leeway during the many, many times its onscreen actions conflicted with credulity, because it doesn’t matter. So then…

107520_galWho cares if Conner is a college-educated scientist and doesn’t know the difference between male and female cows? Who cares if Conner conducts cutting-edge bio-engineering in an open barn with, what appears to be, doing little more than pouring different liquids into different vials? Who cares that the town lawyer is so incompetent he can’t be trusted to read a contract that is all of three pages? Who cares that catching a glimpse of a husband and wife in bed, with the husband under a sheet, is immediately interpreted as Klan membership, because what other possible explanations could there be? Who cares that there is a Klan meeting that Madea accidentally walks in on, and oh yes, they all happen to be in uniform? Who cares that the town’s chief redneck bullies the mayor into firing a teacher when I’m pretty sure that duty is not under the mayor’s direct powers? Who cares that for no reason there is a Naked Gun-style tracking shot that involves passing YouTube celebrities Sweet Brown (“Ain’t nobody got time for that”) and Antoine Dodson (“Hide your children and hide your wives…”)? Who cares if a character believes saying things in public over a microphone to shame a corporation into charitable giving is tantamount to an unbreakable oral agreement? Who cares about the wanton violation of the separation of church and state throughout the film?

Let me dig into that last one for just a bit. Perry takes up the “War on Christmas” mantle and dominates his conclusion with this non-conflict conflict. Turns out the company that is saving the town’s Christmas Jubilee festivity, thus saving jobs and keeping the beleaguered town afloat, has the audacity to request a secular ceremony. First off, this entire service is coordinated and produced by the local town’s government, on government property, and already a violation of the reach of government and religion. Even their classrooms have giant wooden crosses in them. What about anyone in this town who doesn’t happen to be Christian? I suppose anybody with differing religious beliefs is just not welcomed in this part of Alabama. But the most eye-rolling part is when characters screech that some vague omnipresent corporate or bureaucratic entity is taking away Christmas or stopping them from celebrating Christmas. NO ONE IS STOPPING YOU FROM CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS. Some of us just don’t believe that it’s government’s place to advocate or do so on government property, and the courts agree. Anyway, it’s an easy target for Perry and my crowd seemed to be nodding dutifully along to the whole “keep Christ in Christmas” message. It seems like a cheap way to unify the town, and it is.

Perry has been knocking out about two movies a year since he came onto the scene in 2005, and I still don’t know if he properly knows how to adapt his skills to the screen. The tone is uneven and the comedy usually falls flat, but there are just moments that make you shake your head in befuddlement. This is the SECOND Perry movie this year where a mother has been lying to her daughter for decades about her father being dead when he really ran out on them. Perry also decides to fill his holiday film with Christmas-related wipes. One second we’ll be watching some serious drama and then a giant animated Christmas tree will fly across the screen transitioning us to another. What? I’ve never seen this many wipes in a film short of a movie that had Star Wars in its title. From an acting standpoint, I still feel like Perry’s direction is more theatrical, trying to play to the people in the cheap seats. Too many scenes feel rudderless, with assorted actors just feeding more lines to Madea so she can continue on a longer improvisation before somebody remembers to pick up the plot again. The film also ends immediately following the climax, the solution to the town’s ails, without resolution. The camera pans up above the town and cue the end credits. It’s a bit abrupt.

111081_galThen again after directing over ten movies, many starring the Madea character, there is little incentive for Perry to change his style. His brand has made him one of the most lucrative entertainers in the industry, and he has a thriving studio of his own in Georgia, pumping out content and giving lots of African-American actors valuable experience and exposure with parts that don’t include Black Best Friend to the White Lead. Perry is a one-man industry and has legions of fans that will make any one of his movies a hit. They want what they want, and Perry is going to shovel it out to them. A Madea Christmas looks to be more of the same. It’s generally leaden in its comedy, filled with heavy-handed messages, a loose narrative built around propping up Madea improv riffs, and the character’s mean-spiritedness only really works when she’s attacking a deserving party. I’ll have to defer to Ben Bailey on where this ranks up there in the franchise (he said it may be the best), but for me, I was expecting terrible and was treated to mostly just bad. That’s a victory. Merry Christmas everyone! Hallelujer.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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