Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

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Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

Holiday Heart (2000)

The best way to sell the immediate appeal of the film Holiday Heart is likely to announce up front what it is in basic terms: an R-rated, made-for-TV Christmas movie starring Ving Rhames as a street tough drag queen. By now you’ve already decided if you’d ever be interested in watching such a thing, which gives me the freedom to admit that the film is unfortunately not as riotously fun as it could be, considering the potential of its premise. For all of the visual excitement of such a large, muscular man as Rhames playing far against type as a booming-voiced drag queen, Holdiay Heart goes out of its way to normalize & de-sex his character. Off-stage, Holiday Heart is a gay man, but his lover dies before the film begins and only exists in photographs, so the film’s intended Christian audience never has to actually see him expressing queer desire. He’s also introduced as a musician dedicated to worship at his local church before we ever see him perform under his drag persona, reassuring the audience up front that he is a deeply Christrian man and his sexual orientation does not define his relationship with God. Rhames makes for a fascinating appearance as a lumbering brute delicately holding telephones with his fingertips so as not to break a nail, but as a character his titular drag queen protagonist has no inner life outside faith in God and an emotionally vulnerable readiness to cry at the drop of a hat. He has all of the character nuance of Barney the Dinosaur and functions in the film mostly as a Magical Gay Man who can fix straight Christians’ problems through his (literally & figuratively) giant heart. The movie is still enjoyable as a novelty melodrama & Rhames’s few drag performances are aces, but that (lack of) characterization is such a bummer.

Holiday Heart is not just any lumbering, muscular drag queen; she’s the most popular one in town. Making a name for herself by lip-syncing to Supremes hits in a pageant queen tradition, Holiday is nightclub royalty, but still feels rawly empty after the loss of a long-term life partner. This family-sized hole in his heart is filled when he stumbles into a father figure role for the daughter of a near-destitute drug addict. The setup is awkward & messy, but Holiday essentially takes in a mother-daughter duo from the streets to protect them from the domestic abuse & homelessness that threatens their lives. The film is a strict melodrama from there (even name-checking Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life several times throughout to clue you into its tone), with many repetitive fallouts between Holiday & the mother he chooses to shelter as she slips in & out of relapses and flings homophobic slurs in his face to hurt his feelings (which is surprisingly easy). The fate of the little girl they’re both reluctantly tasked to raise hangs in the balance as they struggle between selfishness & self-preservation and The Christian Thing to Do. Obviously, this setup does not lead to a nonstop laugh riot, but the melodrama can often be over-the-top enough to elicit a chuckle or two. The earliest drug relapse is a depraved lighting of a microscopic roach found at the bottom of the mother’s purse. A flashback shows Holiday being shunned at his romantic partner’s funeral while weeping & singing “Baby Love” in full widow drag. A mild hip-hop beat plays over three cliché dramatic orchestral music that scores its more self-serious moments. And then, of course, the whole thing swerves at the last second to justify its pun title by staging its emotional climax on Christmas, a holiday that otherwise plays no part in the plot.

Overall, Holiday Heart is a lot more Christian and a lot less Christmas than it would have to be to satisfy as an over-the-top camp spectacle. The film’s super serious focus on Faith cuts down a lot of its sillier eccentricities and makes the majority of the experience feel more like a bummer than a party. Still, it has the dorky energy of a kids’ movie that just happens to feature a ton of F-bombs & homophobic slurs. It also can’t be over-stated how much the novelty of seeing Ving Rhames in traditional pageant queen drag can carry its less exciting melodrama slumps. The thing about drag, too, is that it’s performative & uncomfortable; most queens can’t wait to de-glamor after a performance, but Holiday lounges around in her stage garb as if it were a comfy bathrobe. He’s not at all coded as transgender, so that bizarre choice just registers as lagniappe opportunities to soak up the Ving-Rhames-as-a-drag-queen novelty, since the lip-sync performances themselves are too few & far between. Much of Holiday Heart registers as goofy & embarrassing, especially in its indulgences in gospel music & erotic slam poetry, but Rhames’s performance as the titular drag queen is genuinely mesmerizing. It’s just a shame they stripped his character of sexual desire & potential for society-disrupting chaos to better mold the film into a Christian-family melodrama about fatherhood. It’s a fun-enough movie as is, but it could have been an all-time with a little more personality.

-Brandon Ledet

Pottersville (2017)

Early reactions to the bizarre Christmas comedy Pottersville have been intensely focused on the over-the-top absurdity of its plot, which is totally fair. Michael Shannon stars as a small town general store owner who, once discovering his wife (Christina Hendricks) is having an affair with his best friend (Ron Perlman), goes out on a drunken rampage in a gorilla suit, inadvertently sparking a Bigfoot hoax that makes his once-humble community internationally famous. Oh yeah, and this incident is sparked by his discovery of a secret club of closeted furry fetishists lurking in his community. That’s certainly not the most traditional of Christmastime narratives (especially the part about the furries), but the movie is much more intentionally (and successfully!) goofy than people are giving it credit. It plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies and its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounts to It’s a Wonderful Yiff, but there’s no way that highly specific aesthetic wasn’t its exact intent. I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but it’s novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful.

Pottersville works best when the material is played straight, allowing the (intentional) camp value of the absurdist plot to shine through in full glory. Michael Shannon is disturbingly committed to his lead role as the put-upon shopkeeper, his natural creepiness only making the most impossibly kind character’s earnest, charitable heart all the more bizarre. His befuddlement over the existence of furries (which he unfortunately discovers by catching his wife mid-yiff) and subsequent, moonshine-influenced decision to run amok as Bigfoot are the easy highlights of the film, wonderfully clashing against the Frank Capra Christmas backdrop. By the time he’s drunkenly howling to the night like a wild animal, the performance is downright Nic Cagian. Thomas Lennon’s turn as the film’s heel is much more pedestrian. Dressed up like an early 2000s boy band singer and armed with a horrendous Australian accent, Lennon plays a reality TV “monster hunter” who blows the Bigfoot story way out of proportion, compounding the small town & general store owner’s problems exponentially. He feels like he’s airdropped in from a much broader, more conventional comedy, which detracts heavily from the much more unique tension between Michael Shannon and the furries, but he’s also amusing enough in isolation that he doesn’t ruin the fun of the picture at large. If nothing else, between this movie & Monster Trucks, Lennon has at least built an interesting case for being Bad Movie MVP of 2017.

Delivered by first-time writer/director team of Seth Henrikson & Daniel Meyer, Pottersville is surprisingly well constructed as a visual piece & an oddly subversive act of comedic writing. The town itself looks like a whimsically manicured snow globe miniature, giving it that Pushing Daisies dollhouse look; even the run-down trailer park is super cute. The script also sneaks in out-of-nowhere allusions to Freaks, Jaws, and the Christian Bale freak-out tape … just because? Whenever it functions as an outright comedy it threatens to become hopelessly pedestrian, but the basic premise of Michael Shannon as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer trying to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life is enough to carry the film as a Christmastime novelty. I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing when achieving that strange imbalance; you don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing. Either way, it’s a strange delight.

-Brandon Ledet

The Children (2008)

Gathering with family & friends over the Holiday Season is both a blessing and a burden. It’s heartwarming to reconnect with long-separated loved ones, huddled up in a shared warm space, sheltered from the bitter cold just outside the house. Family can also grate your nerves after an extended period locked in that domestic prison, especially with enough young children running around, spreading germs and chaos at top volume. Kids can be cute, but they’re also a nuisance & a terror to anyone who’s looking to have a quiet moment of relief from familial stress. The 2009 British horror cheapie The Children understands that terror deep in its bones and builds its entire story around the evil & the chaos screaming children bring into the already stressful environment of a holiday get-together. It’s not one of the most tastefully considered or slickly produced Christmas-set horror films I’ve ever seen, but it does capture that exact kind of domestic, familial terror better than almost any film I can name, save maybe for The Babadook.

Two adult siblings gather their families together for a Christmastime reunion. The adults drink cocktails & gab downstairs while their children play with a mess of toys in the bedroom. One moody teen finds herself caught between those two realms. Bitterness over petty drama involving financial decisions, parenting techniques, and so on make for a partially tense affair, but the adults do an admirable job of putting on a calm face in an uncomfortable situation . . . until the children get involved. For unexplained, seemingly supernatural reasons the kids upstairs become physically & mentally ill in a way that makes them murderous monsters. Using whimpers of “Mommy” &”Daddy” and loud bursts of playtime chaos as a distraction, the children start killing off their parents & other adult relatives one by one in brutal mutilations they either frame as accidents or the doings of the unruly teen. The Children poses its titular tykes as bacteria-filled Petri dishes of pure evil, a chaotic force of Nature that breaks down familial, Christmastime decorum into a violent mess. By the time their victims can decide if they’re even acting strangely or if they’re just “testing boundaries” the way all children tend to do, it’s already far too late.

Stylistically, The Children attempts to accomplish a lot with very few resources to back up its ambitions. Its sets & production values are limited, but it does what it can with quick cut montage edits, weirdo children’s toy sculptures, microbial Nature footage, and practical effects gore to terrorize its audience. Its children-as-monsters premise isn’t exactly a one of a kind in the horror genre; similar ground has been covered in works as wide-ranging as 1956’s The Bad Seed and 2015’s Cooties. It’s the specificity of the Christmas setting, where adults are bottled up in a cesspool of familial stress and the chaos of children whining or at play only adds to the real life terrors that surround them, that makes The Children such a uniquely effective picture. Its slick editing & brutal gotta are what allows it to succeed as a dirt cheap horror production, but the universally recognizable stress of trying to hold your shit together in the face of children-at-play chaos is what makes it special, especially as a Holiday Season genre entry.

-Brandon Ledet

How the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) Nearly Destroyed The World’s Most Popular Film Franchise in Its Infancy

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We’re living in a pretty incredible time to be a Star Wars nerd right now. In the past year, we’ve seen two of the franchise’s best entries, The Force Awakens & Rogue One, bring its battered ghost back to the heights of its Empire Strikes Back & New Hope pinnacle. Now that enough time has passed and most of the bitter taste has been washed away, we’re collectively forgetting the nightmare regime of young Anakin & Jar Jar stepping on the throat of the world’s most popular film franchise, threatening to exterminate Star Wars forever into a CG oblivion. Jar Jar & Hayden Christensen weren’t the first threat to Star Wars‘s legacy, though. Nor were they the worst. A year after the unfathomably popular premiere of the franchise in A New Hope and two years before its sole masterpiece in Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars sank far lower than any line readings of “Meesa people gonna die?” or CG Hayden Christensen force-ghosts ever brought it. The Star Wars Holiday Special is the darkest chapter in the Star Wars saga, a 90min eternity of embarrassment & shame for a series that might not have survived it in the age of internet chatrooms or, even more recently, turbulent Twitter storms. The Star Wars Holiday Special luckily flew under the radar, surviving only as a ghost on the world’s least-watched VHS cassettes instead of being consistently torn apart in a public forum. If released in a more modern era, it might’ve been a death blow.

A variety show holiday special in the vein of a Bing Crosby or a Pee-wee’s Playhouse seasonal broadcast, this fanboy nightmare centers on the inane & vaguely defined Wookie celebration of Life Day. Along with Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Jefferson Starship, and a few other stray celebrities most children wouldn’t give two shits about, not even in the late 70s, most of the original Star Wars crew makes an appearance here. Mark Hamill & Carrie Fisher get off light, appearing only in brief video conference scenes, never having to appear on set in their respective Skywalker roles. David Prowse & James Earl Jones escape even more responsibility for this crime against decency, as Darth Vader’s brief scenes are mere overdubs of clips from A New Hope. It’s truly Harrison Ford & Peter Mayhew who suffer the biggest loss of dignity here. The entire special’s narrative is structured around Han Solo helping Chewbacca avoid Imperial capture on his path home to his Wookie family in time for their all-important Life Day celebration. That’s right; Chewbacca has a non-canonical family created just for this prestigious holiday special. His father Itchy, his son Lumpy, and his wife Malla are no doubt the three most ill-conceived and poorly designed characters of a franchise that, again, was also responsible for Jar Jar Binks. Most of The Star Wars Holiday Special features Chewbacca’s ugly, shrill, unlikable family as they hang out in their mat painting treehouse condo, whining, roaring, and grumbling until their hirsute paterfamilias arrives. It’s borderline unwatchable, even with the occasional respite of a Han Solo line reading or a half-cooked comedy sketch from Mel Brooks collaborator Harvey Korman. It’s probably not fair to pick on the quality of 1970s children’s media from this decades-late hindsight, but this truly is one of the most unpleasant and, frankly, boring 90min stretches of sci-fi media I’ve ever endured. I’m honestly surprised Star Wars escaped it unscathed.

Not every moment in the special is agony. There’s a Heavy Metal-style animation sequence that’s an especially welcome moment of competence & effortless cool, one that serves as the first introduction of space mercenary Boba Fett as a character. Given my own nature as a gleeful garbage-gobbling goon, I also found some occasional touches of worthwhile camp hiding amidst the shrill Wookie whines. A bartending Bea Arthur sings a Kurt Weill number to a cantina full of unruly customers at closing time because she’s being shut down by the series’ de facto Space Nazis. Itchy, everyone’s favorite Wookie grandpa, has dirty video conference phone sex with Diahann Carroll in the same living room where his daughter in law is preparing a traditional Life Day meal. I also got the strange feeling that several characters were flirting with Chewbacca’s wife Malla and, although admittedly hideous, there’s something truly amusing about the look of his own son Lumpy. It’s better experienced in still images rather than in actually watching the special, but I’m just glad I how have something besides the Baby Grinch to post pictures of during my Yuletide shitposting.

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However, nothing in The Star Wars Holiday Special is excitingly campy enough to make up for the fact that overall the film feels like watching human muppet Bruce Villach, one of the special’s credited writers, narrate a 90min YouTube supercut of goats screaming. The special manages to reach a rare kind of awful that’s both boring and abrasive. It offers so little reward for the great leaps of faith it requires to stomach it’s incessant Wookie whines & stale comedy routines that I’m honestly shocked the Star Wars franchise survived it intact. This was a time before the series’ home video availability, so besides story records & tie-in picture books, The Star Wars Holiday Special was the first way you could take George Lucas’s populist classic home with you. The Empire Strikes Back eventually destroyed any lingering resentment this television broadcast could’ve generated, but if something this awful were released in the same intense scrutiny era of Jar Jar Binks’s moment in the flamewar sun, it might not have bounced back so quickly. As you’re preparing to celebrate yet another Life Day with your family this year, consider taking some time out of your holiday to revisit the beloved institution of Star Wars‘s creative lowpoint, or at least as much of it as you can stand. It might bring you nothing but pain & regret, but it’ll at least make you more appreciative of the heights the series has returned to in its post-Disney buyout era. You might even learn to cut Jar Jar some slack now that he’s got Lumpy & Itchy to compete with as the franchise’s ultimate lowpoint in terms of taste & annoyance.

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-Brandon Ledet

A Christmas Carol Five Ways

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For this holiday, I decided to watch five different versions of A Christmas Carol. Despite the anti-semitic subtext (the main character is a stingy money lender with a big nose, and the name Ebenezer, who finds the meaning of Christmas), it’s a story that 173 years later still feels relevant: a ruthless, old rich man who hates Christmas being scared into human decency.

I’m going to give an overview here in chronological order along with my choice for favorite ghost.

Scrooge (1951)

This is the version considered to be the best classic. It’s easy to write it off as just a straightforward telling of the book, but there’s a lot of stylistic fun. The ghosts have some cool fadings in and out, the lighting and atmosphere are spooky, and this film seems to have set the rules for how A Christmas Carol movies should look and feel. Not to mention the iconic way they present Tiny Tim’s famous line.

Alastair Sim is a really great Scrooge. He plays both sides of the character’s nature well: the detestable penny pincher and the pitiful old man. Not to mention that he makes a bunch of fantastic faces. His ending transformation is absolutely manic and almost more terrifying than how he starts out.

Favorite Ghost: I think the Ghost of Christmas Past here is actually really cool. In a lot of ways, I think this is the hardest ghost to get right, which is a shame because it’s the one that usually gets the most screen time.  I like this guy’s Greek robes. He’s soft spoken yet authoritative, which I guess makes sense, since the past speaks for itself.

Scrooge (1970)

I was really surprised with how much I really enjoyed this one. It might be my second favorite and I’m considering adding it to the household tradition watch list. It’s very solidly British, with very solidly British humor. It’s a musical, and one of the first songs you hear is “I Hate People.” If you’re not sold after that number, I don’t know what to tell you. But if you make it through enjoying nothing else, it gets really ’70s weird near the end, with a trippy scene where Scrooge actually goes to Hell.

Albert Finney is by far the grubbiest Scrooge. There’s a few close-ups of his very grimy hands with dirt under the finger nails. Scrooge’s house reflects that and  is the most convincing Scrooge house. It’s this elaborate mansion, but Scrooge is so stingy that he only uses a small, filthy section of it. The rest is cobwebs and decay.

Favorite Ghost: Jacob Marley is my favorite ghost in this one. He’s played by Alec Guinness (hey, he plays a ghost at least twice in his career), who pantomimes ghostly floating by bobbing up and down. Second place to the Ghost of Christmas Past for having a really great hat!

Scrooged (1988)

This take on A Christmas Carol is very different. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s about Bill Murray who is a television executive. He’s ruthless and bizarre. As he’s producing a live TV version of A Christmas Carol, he gets visited by the three ghosts (I guess four if you count Marley) who are just as updated and bizarre. It’s the very cynical Network-esque take on the story.

Bill Murray is great as a rich asshole. He’s exactly the kind of rich asshole a modern audience knows about. The boss who will fire someone for bringing up reasonable concerns and will ignore when a single mom needs to take her child to the doctor.  As a Scrooge type character he’s half as old but twice as mean, and despite the surreal world that surrounds him, he’s quite believable, which in a lot of ways makes him seem like he’s past redemption. Luckily the ghosts are ruthless and sadistic.

Favorite Ghost: It’s really hard to say no to Carol Kane as bubbly fairy punching Bill Murray in the face, but I actually really like the take on Christmas Yet to Come here. Its entrance, just appearing, looming on the television monitors, is just so creepy and amazing.

A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

This version is my personal favorite and has been since childhood, and despite the presence of The Muppets, it’s actually really close to the book. There are many, many lines lifted straight from the page. I’m kind of a big Jim Henson/muppets fan in general (which you may remember from my article about The Dark Crystal), but I think what really gets me about this movie are those Paul Williams melodies. I don’t really think it’s Christmas without them (especially since my other favorite Christmas movies is Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, another Henson production with more of Williams’s music). This movie came out after Jim Henson died and was directed by his son, but all the other muppet players are there: Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Steve Whitmire (who now voices Kermit after Henson’s death).

Gonzo is Charles Dickens here and narrates the whole thing with the help of Rizzo the Rat. Following that pair’s misadventures through the story keeps the muppet whimsicality throughout the whole movie. Not to mention the appearances by other notable muppet characters like the Swedish Chef or Sam the Eagle. Michael Caine as Scrooge delivers the “they better do it and decrease the surplus population” line with so much darkness and grit, but at the same time has such good chemistry with his furry castmates. As I’ve said already that this is my favorite version of the story, he’s also who I think of as Scrooge.   Also at the end, he busts out some of the most awkward moves I think I’ve seen a grown man do, and in his night gown to boot!

Favorite Ghost: I’m going to have to go with Marley here. Except in this version they created a second Marley, Robert Marley. These two Marleys are played by Statler and Waldorf, who are known for being the hecklers. They get a pretty good musical number complete with singing money chests.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Out of all the versions I watched, this was the most mediocre and also the most frightening. It’s a Robert Zemeckis animated feature done in a very similar style to Polar Express, which means uncanny semi-realistic people, but beautiful backgrounds. There are so many adaptations of this work, though, that I don’t think I really understand why this one was even necessary, since it’s very close to the book and other than some impressive animation it’s pretty unremarkable. Nor do I understand why a family movie has a couple unnecessary jump scares. Despite the jump scares and creepy animated people, it just seems to drag on.  There’s so many scenes of Scrooge getting dragged along and knocked about all of them screaming, “We released this in 3D!”. It gets so old so quickly. There’s also some really bizarre and troubling imagery worked throughout. Jacob Marley’s jaw gets detached. The Ghost of Christmas Past goes through a freaky face morphing thing. A woman gets snatched away by a straight jacket. It’s just very dark. I wasn’t especially impressed with Jim Carrey as Scrooge, either. Albeit, this was animated, so I’m going off the voice acting for the most part, despite the film using motion capture heavily in it’s animation.

Favorite Ghost: I didn’t think they were interesting at all, but I guess I’ll go with Marley again, but only because he’s a grotesque, decaying corpse.

Interestingly, 3 of the 5 titles are some variation on Scrooge. All of them are agreed on what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks like, 4 out of 5 have similar ideas of the Ghost of Christmas Present, but none of them can agree on what the Ghost of Christmas Past looks like.

-Alli Hobbs

Office Christmas Party (2016)

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three star

Remember how funny that movie Office Space was? Jeez, I remember laughing so hard at all of those angsty slackers who worked for a dysfunctional corporation and committed federal crimes in their free time. What a riot. Say, I wonder what it’d be like to be at one of their holiday parties, where all the antisocial weirdos from Office Space got drunk & let loose in their soul-crushing work environment. Yeah, that’d be great.

That flimsy elevator pitch is about as fully fleshed out as the premise for this year’s seasonal raunchy comedy offering (following the footsteps of last year’s The Night Before, I suppose). Office Christmas Party even dares to bring back Jennifer Aniston to recall her most famous non-Friends role in Office Space to make sure you get the picture. I wasn’t being entirely sarcastic when I said that premise would be great, though. Sometimes, all a dumb comedy needs to function is the most bare bones premise to hang jokes & eccentric characters off of. Office Christmas Party makes no excuse for being a silly, half-baked comedy that survives on the talent of its cast rather than the strength or the immediacy of its content. The film is exactly as amusing as it needs to be to feel worthwhile as a Christmas-themed feature-length dick joke — no more, no less. Christmas season provides the itch and this movie only does the bare minimum to scratch it.

As such, it’s a movie where plot description won’t help you much in determining whether or not it’s worthwhile. Instead of playing the “cool chick” girlfriend role she filled in Office Space, Aniston is ice cold here as a business exec threatening to shut her bumbling brother’s branch of the company down if he doesn’t land The Big Contract by midnight. The idiot brother, a top of his game TJ Miller, puts all of his save-the-company eggs in one basket: wooing his contractual target through a Christmas-themed rager at the tech company’s Chicago office. The party gets out of hand; copious laws & bones are broken; a fiasco ensues while Jason Bateman, effortlessly slipping back into Michael Bluth mode, cleans up the mess in a befuddled effort of damage control. Of course, only one element of any of this matters in the slightest: the party itself. It gets wild enough to remain consistently entertaining, clashing awkward office party inhibition with pansexual, drug-fueled orgy and the film focuses solely on the minor goal of making you laugh in the midst of the chaos.

Office Christmas Party survives mostly on the strength of its ensemble cast. Rob Corddry’s office badboy collides beautifully with Kate McKinnon’s uptight HR worrywart. Jillian Bell is a striking culture clash as a kindly mid-Western pimp to The Neon Demon & Fury Road vet Abbey Lee. Miller & Bateman are consistently game to debase themselves with sexually-charged slapstick humor and the rest of the cast is rounded out by always-welcome stretch comedy mainstays Ian Roberts & Vanessa Bayer, along with a whole slew of fresh faces whose names I’m sure I’ll be learning in the coming years. Everyone seems to be having fun with the material, as slight as it is, and there’s a genuine party vibe to the film that’s infectious as an audience just happy to be in the same room as so many talented comedians who never see enough screen time (Bell & McKinnon especially).

I’m not sure Office Christmas Party is in any danger of becoming a seasonal cult classic. There are some stray memorable details in its eggnog blowjobs, 3D-printed dicks, and mini-vans drenched in parrot cum, but the film’s not necessarily interested in distinguishing itself from the crowd in the annual tradition of Yuletide gross-out comedies. Rather, it’s content to garner an occasional laugh from a violent pratfall or a well-timed fart and let well enough alone. I didn’t expect much more out of the film going in, which left enough room for me to be pleasantly surprised by an occasional touch like its liberal display of male nudity or its inclusion of Big Freedia on the soundtrack. “What if the Office Space gang threw an out-of-control Christmas party and consequence-free chaos ensued?” is apparently enough effort on a premise level to keep me happy in a low stakes dumb comedy, even if it is just enough. I feel no shame for that, but I probably should.

-Brandon Ledet

Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014)

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three star

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Do I have a soft spot for talking animal movies or something? Earlier this year I found perverse entertainment in the talking dog pro wrestling movie Russell Madness and then presented the talking-pig-saves-the-day epic Babe 2: Pig in the City for our August Movie of the Month selection. And now I’m here to report that the Lifetime Original Movie Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever isn’t actually all that bad. “Not actually all that bad” is far from high praise, I know, but for a made-for-TV movie about an internet meme in which the main character repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to complain about how awful the movie is, it’s a fairly surprising distinction. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever knows exactly what kind of movie it is & doesn’t pretend to be anything more. It self-references its protagonist’s meme fame by adopting I Can Haz Cheezburger font for multiple gags. It willingly points out when it subs a stunt puppet for the real Grumpy. It “jokingly” promotes Grumpy Cat merchandise with little to no pretence. When its self-described “sappy melodrama” plot kicks into high gear, Grumpy complains “Don’t get sappy on me. Oh wait, I forgot. It’s a Lifetime Movie. Go ahead.” Self-deprecation & self-referential humor can sometimes be low hanging fruit, but it kinda works for this movie, given the limited possibilities of its Grumpy Cat: The Movie premise.

I guess a lot of what saves Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever from being the worst movie ever is in the casting of Aubrey Plaza as Grumpy Cat’s voice over (and as Aubrey Plaza in a sound booth). Just like when Plaza played a live-action Daria Morgendorffer in a spoof trailer comedy sketch a few summers back, the casting just makes way too much sense. Her comedic persona is basically of a human cat, right? Her wry, detached, disinterested sense of humor sets the bar so underachievingly low here (in a good way!) that it’s always possible for the movie to succeed. The plot involves some kind of depressive Gordy situation where only one grumpy preteen girl can hear Grumpy Cat talk. This girl gets mixed up in a small-time heist situation involving two rock & roll douches & a Peep Beep Meme Creep mall cop dweeb. While she thwarts their evil deeds Grumpy Cat shows zero interest in getting involved in the goings on. She just sorta riffs on the idiocy of the plot, hanging back, essentially life-tweeting/hate-watching her own movie. Imagine a family comedy with its own MST3k commentary built in, but skewing to a younger crowd & you pretty much get the picture.

Even though it aims a younger audience, though, the movie manages to get a few subversive jabs in there. It introduces its shopping mall setting as “a soul-sucking bastion of consumerism which serves to drain people’s bank accounts and alienate them from the true meaning of life.” Plaza also injects a lot of her own comedic persona into the role, especially in the way she calls her costars “terrible human beings” & “witches”. There are plenty of non sequitur asides distracting from the plot, but the most fucked up of all is a brief tangent in which Grumpy Cat is sentenced to prison (the pound) & promptly executed (put down). Quite the light-hearted gag, that. Worse yet is an exchange after the whole botched heist ordeal concludes & Grumpy Cat’s human’s mother asks her formerly-grumpy child, “Those guys didn’t do anything to you, did they?” & Grumpy Cat responds “That’s a different kind of Lifetime Movie.” I know this is a movie about a cat with a mean streak, but yikes. That one’s got bite.

For the most part, though, the moments I enjoyed most about Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever weren’t subversive at all. The film works best when it embraces its own hokey stupidity. When Grumpy is propped up in front of a green screen to simulate driving, flying, setting off explosions, or going Rambo with a cat-sized automatic paint gun are dumb & simple enough to get by on their own half-assed charm. My favorite moment of all in Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, though, is Plaza’s line-reading of “We’re in a movie!” during the film’s action-packed climax. It’s a sublimely dumb moment in a thoroughly dumb movie about “the Internet’s biggest cash cat”. In 2014, Grumpy Cat seemed to be doing a lazy, half-hearted victory lap, soaking up the last of her short-term fame in moves like appearing on Monday Night Raw & starring in her own Christmas movie. Anyone tuning in for a dumb made-for-TV Christmas movie about a cantankerous cat should be well-prepared for what’s delivered here, especially considering how the film warns you of its emptiness with early onscreen references to Keyboard Cat & Nyan Cat (come to think of it, Lil Bub was snubbed). Grumpy Cat’s  Worst Christmas Ever doesn’t ask much of itself, which is oddly enough what makes the whole thing work in its own diminutive way. Well, that & Aubrey Plaza, who is delightful in her refusal to be delightful.

-Brandon Ledet

2015’s Top Five Offerings for Christmastime Counterprogramming

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Christmastime can often bring out the saps in us, something that can be downright overwhelming if you pay too much attention to the season’s radio broadcasts, TV, and cinema. Those looking to indulge in the sentimentality certainly have plenty to choose from. Love the Coopers is the only traditional Christmas movie from this year that his the theaters (that I can think of, anyway), but there’s plenty of made-for-TV movies (seemingly all on the Hallmark Channel) & Christmas-themed TV episodes waiting to fill that void. Thankfully, 2015 has also offered plenty of Christmastime counterprogramming, consciously non-traditional works that sidestep the more maudlin aspects of the genre. The following films were my favorite non-Christmasy Christmas films of the year, each with links to their respective reviews from this site & their corresponding trailers. I hope it breaks up the routine seasonal monotony of A Christmas Stories & It’s a Wonderful Lifes for you this Yuletide season.

5. Everly

Just in case you don’t want to watch Kevin McAllister try on his dad’s aftershave for the 1,000th time, why not watch a gun-weilding Selma Hayek rock a bloody negligee for a couple action-packed hours instead? Everly is a yakuza-style shootout film featuring themes of revenge, prostitution, human-trafficking, and – you guessed it – families struggling to make it home for Christmas. It’s also quite funny, considering its endless sequences of bloodsoaked violence.

4. Patch Town

The Nutcracker is a classic Christmas ballet in which magical toys come to life when no one’s looking to dance adorably & act all magic-like or some such. Patch Town is a horror comedy Christmas musical in which an evil toy factory freezes forest-grown babies in their infantile state & sells them as Cabbage Patch Dolls until their adoptive owners outgrow & discard them, when they’re promptly unfrozen & forced to work in the very factory that extracted them from the cabbage patch in the first place. They’re about the same if you think about it, but at least Patch Town is new.

3. The Night Before

Scrooged is my all-time favorite Christmas movie. In some ways, though, its cynical drunk of a protagonist didn’t push Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol far enough into unexpected territory. Thankfully, The Night Before is here to update the narrative to include not one, but three cynical protagonists who are visited by a mystical weed dealer instead of the ghost of a cabbie AND The Grinch AND instead of sticking to just alcohol they indulge in “every single drug in the whole world.” It’s honestly the most sentimental film on this list, but it’s also one of the most excessive, so I’m willing to let it slide.

Bonus Selection: If you need an alternative to that alternative due to the seasonally appropriate sentimentality, ghosts & Christmas also mix in the very, merry un-Dickens Paranormal Activity VI: The Ghost Dimension.

 

2. Krampus

Tim Allen is a notorious reformed-cokehead comedian, so I guess in some ways the hokey Santa Clause franchise is already a subversive Christmas narrative. If you’re looking for an even-more non-traditional Santa surrogate, though, try Krampus: a soul-stealing demon who acts as “St. Nicholas’ shadow” whenever bad little girls & boys lose faith in the holiday. Director Michel Dougherty’s first film, Trick ‘r Treat, was entirely faithful to the traditions of Halloweens & thankfully he kept the October vibes rolling into December traditions in a time where so many people do it the other way around, celebrating Christmas before Halloween even gets rolling. All hail Krampus for bucking the trend.

1. Tangerine

Some of the best Christmas movies are the ones where the holiday is mere background noise, barely getting in the way of the narrative. Any rebel sticking around long enough becomes part of the establishment, though, so titles like Batman Returns & Gremlins don’t work quite as well as counterprogramming as they did 20 or 30 years ago. Mercifully, Tangerine is willing to fill that void in the here & now. Following a trans sex worker as she drags her bestie along on a revenge plot to confront her fiancée/former pimp is worlds away from the traditional Christmas narrative. It’s so committed to outdoing Gremlins’/Batman Returns’/Die Hard’s/Eyes Wide Shut‘s counterprogramming that it even forgoes those film’s snowscapes for a brightly lit/sunshiney Los Angeles that should feel mighty familiar to how New Orleans most often spends Christmas. It, of course, also helps that it’s one of the best films of the year, Christmas counterprogramming or not.

-Brandon Ledet