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

Krampus (2015)

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fourhalfstar

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When I first became aware of Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, I was ecstatic because I absolutely love Christmas horror films (Silent Night, Deadly Night, Gremlins, Santa’s Slay, etc.). What’s not to love about a film based on what is essentially the opposite of Santa? A demon that goes around punishing little brats that misbehave sounds like a good time to me. I got even more excited when I found out that Toni Collette, my all-time favorite actress, was playing a lead role in the film. This was a movie made for me, so needless to say, I had pretty high expectations. Thankfully, Krampus did not disappoint.

Other than it being a horror film about a murderous Christmas beast, one of the weirdest things about Krampus is that it made it to the big screen. Most Christmas horror movies go straight to DVD. I can’t even remember the last time a Christmas horror film was in theaters. It may have been the 2006 remake of Black Christmas, but I’m not quite sure. Anyway, it’s always a good sign when a campy movie makes it to theaters. Krampus brought in over $16,000,000 on its opening weekend, which is pretty impressive considering its campy reputation. Bad taste is alive and well!

The film begins with a hilarious but disturbingly truthful Black Friday scene that will give you all the feels. Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” plays as a mob of greedy customers wreak havoc on a retail store. The audience in the movie theater gave out a few good laughs for this part, but a good bit of the crowd had on their “ain’t it the truth” face. Among the people in the retail store are the film’s main characters: husband/wife duo Tom (Adam Scott) and Sara (Toni Collette) and their 10-year-old son, Max (Emjay Anthony).

Max is old enough to know that Santa is not real, but there’s a part of him that just can’t give up on believing in Santa. It’s as though his belief in Santa represents his want to have a normal, enjoyable holiday with his family. Max’s German grandmother (Krista Stadler) is very supportive of his belief, and she encourages him to write a letter to Santa. He eventually becomes upset and rips up his Santa letter, throwing the pieces out of his bedroom window. By doing this, he unintentionally summons Krampus, but Krampus does not arrive to Max’s home alone. He brings a couple of demonic toys, gingerbread men, and elves with him, and they do most of the dirty work. And by “dirty work,” I mean that they execute most of the murders. The evil elves and possessed toys were actually pretty frightening, but the demonic gingerbread men were totally unnecessary. Actually, I can honestly say that they were the only reason I didn’t give this movie five stars. They were terrible! And not even in the good way.

Something that I noticed in Krampus was the abundance of tongue action. One of the demonic toys, which is an angel doll, uses its tongue while it attacks Sarah. This really gross, super thin tongue comes out of this creepy toy’s mouth, and it’s absolutely terrifying. Also, Krampus has a weird tongue thing going on as well. When he comes face to face with Max, he has a tongue very similar to the angel doll, and he licks the poor kid’s face. While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but think of Beth Grant tonguing that mannequin in September’s Movie of the Month, The Boyfriend School.

Krampus is definitely going into my traditional Christmas watchlist, along with Home Alone, A Christmas Story, and Miracle on 34th Street. It’s got the perfect balance of comedy and horror. There are times where you’ll be crying from laughter, but there will be times that you’ll come close to peeing your pants from fear.

-Britnee Lombas

The Night Before (2015)

fourstar

I should preface this review with the confession that Scrooged is my favorite Christmas movie. Bill Murray worship not withstanding, I feel like Scrooged is typically considered a minor, non-traditional Christmas comedy at best, not a typical go-to for the genre. I’m saying this because I greatly enjoyed The Night Before, but it’s hard to tell if its irreverent, drug-fuelled take on Christmas tradition will win over any longterm audiences, since it very much mimics the alcohol-soaked magic & pessimism of Scrooged. The Night Before not only mimics Scrooged‘s cynical, modern-world take on A Christmas Carol, but expands its adaptation scope to include touches of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, and (duh) “The Night Before Christmas”. Its excessive aping of former Christmas tales approaches allusions the same way its characters ingest “every single drug in the whole world.” Scrooged was a cynical, surreal adaptation of a Christmas classic told through the lens of alcoholism & Reaganomics. The Night Before is a similar beast, but it’s much less picky about its controlled substances or its source material & its lens is obviously more of a social media-era millennial brand.

You might expect that a raunchy comedy featuring long stretches of a Jewish man sweating his way through an aggressive cocktail of cocaine & psilocybin mushrooms would have little care at all for Christmas tradition, but The Night Before is far from the tradition-breaking excess of this year’s Everly or Tangerine. At its heart, the film is a simple story about three friends learning how to reconcile the changes that come with growing up & what it means to be a family. The three buds in question are living out a chaotic holiday ritual in which they fuck, drug, and vandalize their way through Christmas Eve while most people are sleeping or preparing for the big day ahead. Fearing that they might be becoming “those kids who won’t stop trick or treating” they decide to have one last drug-fueled blast to put the tradition to rest. And because they’re adults with adult issues looming over them, this hallucinatory catharsis of an evening brings to the surface crippling anxieties about their families, their careers, and the difference between being a good friend & being an enabler.

I wasn’t entirely stoked about director Jonathan Levine’s other Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s buddy comedy 50/50, but I did respect it for aiming for a more melancholy, real-talk vibe than most of Rogen’s comedy vehicles. The Night Before is a pretty great compromise between 50/50‘s grim tone & Rogen’s more over-the-top Judd Apatow-style ensemble comedies. Much like a lot of comedies in Rogen’s past, The Night Before survives a lot on the strength of its extensive cast of great comedians: Tracy Morgan, Ilana Glazer, Jason Mantzoukas, Mindy Kaling, Lizzy Caplain, Nathan Fielder, and Jillian Bell, who is so much of a perfect romantic match for Seth Rogen that I’d love to see them repeat their chemistry for at least one more feature. There are a few celebrity cameos to boot, which I’ll try my best not to spoil here, except to say that the mystic weed dealer character made me quite giddy. What makes all this work as something more than just an empty comedic exercise is Jonathan Levine’s touch with the tender & the melancholy. The Night Before has some grotesquely cynical moments for sure, mostly in its obnoxious ad placement for Sony & Red Bull, but for the most part it does a great job of balancing its lavish fantasy-fulfillment partying with subdued moments of emotional fragility. The tough-as-nails front the three leads put on is a deception at best, as is the film’s own supposed hedonism. It’s truthfully an old softy at heart, a traditional Christmastime sap-fest concerned with the (literal) magic of the season & the importance of familial bonds. It just happens to be one that features a supernatural weed dealer & vigorous bathroom sex.

-Brandon Ledet